Edgartown harbor revenue mirrors sluggish economy

— File photo by Susan Safford

Edgartown harbor master Charlie Blair tells a story to illustrate how much his world has changed. He recalls the busiest days of the boating season, when his staff couldn’t keep up with requests from visitors asking for moorings in the popular and picturesque harbor.

“Five years ago during the summer, July and August, we had to take waiting lists for the radio calls,” Mr. Blair said. “We had to put them on stand-by, write the name of the boat down and get back to them.”

Not any longer.

“We didn’t have to keep a list once this summer,” he said.

But the limited number of moorings for transient vessels, and the limited number of annual mooring leases for local boat owners, remained mostly full last summer. Harbor revenue for 2010 was up 3.4 percent, compared with 2009. The harbor took in $504,651 this year, an increase of $16,772.

September revenues totaled $17,807, down $9,647, or 35.1 percent. Edgartown, like most harbors in the region, took an economic hit from Hurricane Earl, when people hauled their boats as a precaution.

“Earl ended the season,” Mr. Blair said. “People hauled all over New England.”

Anchors away

Where the drop off in the number of visiting boaters is most evident, according to Mr. Blair, is in the anchorage areas, and day trippers. “Five years ago, our anchorage had 80 to 100 boats,” Mr. Blair said. This past summer, even at the height of the season, there were often fewer than 20 boats anchored, he said.

While it does not affect town revenue because boats at anchor do not pay a fee, it does have an economic impact. Fewer boats at anchor mean fewer boaters coming ashore to shop, eat in restaurants, and buy provisions.

Mr. Blair has also observed a sharp drop in boaters visiting on day trips. “When the economy actually recovers, yachting will recover, too,” Mr. Blair said. “When I see those Falmouth and Hyannis day trippers coming over mid-week for lunch, I’ll know the economy is recovering.”

Harbor picture

Edgartown harbor has 80 moorings for visiting boaters, four slips for smaller boats that rent by the hour, and space for two larger boats on the north dock. The town charges $40 per night for transient moorings, and $4 per foot for space on the north dock.

Mr. Blair noticed a trend when the national economic turmoil hit in 2009. He saw fewer small vessels visiting, so he rearranged the mooring field. Larger vessels need more mooring room, so he had to reduce the total number of transient moorings slightly. “We found more big boats were coming,” he said. “We cut down the number of rental moorings and created a few bigger ones. You have to take what’s there.”

There are 800 privately owned moorings in Edgartown Harbor, Katama Bay, Eel Pond, and Sengekontacket Pond. The town charged an annual permit fee of $175 for an annual permit this past summer, an increase of $25 over the previous year.

Mr. Blair said prices would remain the same for all boaters next summer.

Water work

The department has three full-time employees, including the harbor master, and 10 part-time or seasonal employees to run the office and help visiting boaters. This year Mr. Blair took on nine assistant harbor masters, two fewer than the summer before. On slow days he assigns the assistants to do maintenance jobs, such as building new docks.

Town meeting voters approved an operating budget of $408,020 for harbor expenses. Of that amount, $302,170 goes for salaries. The operating budget represents an increase of 1.8 percent over the previous year. Salary expenses accounted for all of the increase.

Voters also approved a separate appropriation this year for $60,000 to maintain and replace moorings, buoys, docks, and other harbor equipment. They also approved $23,000 to replace an engine on the town-owned vessel Patrol.