South Road closure for President’s visit impacts local businesses

Up-Island Automotive's small sign to let customers know the gas station is open is dwarfed by the orange detour sign and street signs to the right. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

On Tuesday morning, during what is usually the busiest week all year for Up-Island Automotive, business was dead. Patrick Jenkinson, son of owner Walter “Pat” Jenkinson, said he was just heading out to put a sign up on South Road to remind customers the gas station is still open, when The Times called around 9 am.

Mr. Jenkinson said Up-Island Automotive is struggling this week, due to the closure of a portion of South Road, in connection with the arrival of President Barack and Michelle Obama last Saturday. The Obamas and their two daughters are staying at an estate on Snail Road, just off South Road, during their weeklong vacation.

On Saturday afternoon the Secret Service closed South Road between Meeting House Road and Wooton Bassett Road to all traffic, effective through Sunday. Only abutters and emergency vehicles are allowed to pass security check points.

South Road is one of three up-Island arteries, in addition to Middle Road and North Road. Vehicle drivers traveling west, or up Island, have the option to detour over the dirt Meeting House Road to Middle Road.

Although the South Road closure is beyond Up-Island Automotive and other local West Tisbury businesses, it has made a dramatic decrease in their traffic, Mr. Jenkinson said. Electronic signs on Edgartown and State Roads that warn of a detour off South Road have discouraged many drivers from venturing that way at all.

Less traffic, less dollars

The Obamas’ vacation week coincides with events that have become the Island’s summertime grand finale, Illumination Night at the Campground and fireworks in Oak Bluffs, and the annual agricultural fair in West Tisbury. For local businesses, it is also one of the most profitable.

“We really rely on this third week in August, especially Fair week,” Mr. Jenkinson said. “We do as much business in that one week as we do in three weeks in February. But we’re way down from what we usually get in sales, more than 15 to 20 percent.”

At Alley’s General Store, owned by the Martha’s Vineyard Preservation Trust (MVPT), the road closure’s impact is evidenced by empty parking spaces, usually a scarce commodity in the summer and especially in mid-August.

“Basically, the major East-West corridor on the Island has been turned into a dead end,” MVPT executive director Chris Scott told The Times in a phone call Tuesday. “It will be thousands of dollars lost.”

He said he checked with Alley’s bookkeeper and got revenue figures from the same dates last year for comparison.

“It’s startling, even though it’s only been a few days, but it’s trending to more of an effect each consecutive day as people get used to the road closure,” Mr. Scott said. “I think it will mean at least a 25 percent reduction in Alley’s gross sales this week. And August, for almost all Island businesses, represents a very significant percentage, maybe 33 percent, of all gross sales annually.”

Mr. Scott said he tracks Alley’s sales weekly, which until this week were trending upward by about 1.5 percent from last year. “This ought to be our big week,” he added. “It’s not going to put the store out of business, but it’s not helpful. You don’t get it back.”

Despite the setback, Mr. Scott remains positive.

“Alley’s was established in 1858, and as the Island’s oldest business, has gone through the Great Depression, two world wars, and the hurricane of ’38,” he said. “We will get through this.”

In contrast to Alley’s, the road closure is a non-issue next door at 7a Foods, owned by Dan Sauer and his wife, Wenonah. Mr. Sauer apologized for not returning a morning call from The Times until late afternoon, explaining that he had been too busy with customers until then. “We haven’t felt a noticeable difference,” Mr. Sauer said. “We seem to have the same number of people coming into the store, if not more, than last year. We’ve been going pretty strong so far this week.”

The “farm to takeout” restaurant serves breakfast and lunch and offers a variety of baked goods, salads, soups, sandwiches, and prepared foods, most of them made from scratch using locally sourced ingredients.

Not a local decision

Mr. Jenkinson expressed frustration at how the road closure came about and the lack of recourse. “We found out four days before the President came that we’d be at a dead end,” he said, adding that, “None of our local politicians want to hear about it, nor do the local police.”

Chilmark Police Chief Brian Cioffi confirmed the Secret Service’s security team’s plans to close the road on Tuesday, August 6. He told The Times he recommended ways to modify the plan to make it more flexible, but the Secret Service had the last word.

Chilmark selectman Warren Doty expressed his unhappiness about the road closure at a selectmen’s meeting that night. The next day, Chilmark executive secretary Tim Carroll posted a notice in the front of town hall advising “anyone aggrieved” by the planned closing to call or email the White House.

A matter of choice

The road closing is the first associated with a president’s visit to Martha’s Vineyard. The unusual security arrangement is related to the president’s choice of a vacation house, this one far less secluded than his previous rental.

In 2009, 2010, and 2011, the Obamas rented Blue Heron Farm in Chilmark, a 28.5-acre compound on Town Cove, off Tisbury Great Pond, and situated at the end of a long dirt road.

Blue Heron was sold in December 2011 to an architect, Lord Norman Foster, and his wife, Lady Elena Foster, of Thames Bank in Great Britain.

“The President was literally our neighbor here, when he stayed at Blue Heron,” Mr. Jenkinson said. “All the other times he visited, it has been a boost in business. We had Secret Service vehicles and the motorcade gassing up, in addition to our regular customers. We never had it impact our business negatively before.”

Five houses made the short list of vacation getaways, according to sources familiar with the planning. The list included houses in more remote Island locations and at least one house in the Boldwater subdivision on Edgartown Great Pond. The president chose the home off South Road owned by David M. Schulte, the founder and managing partner of Chilmark Partners, a Chicago-based corporate finance and restructuring advisory company.

Mr. Schulte’s estate includes a 5,000-square-foot, four-bedroom house valued at $7.6 million, with an attached two-bedroom guesthouse, and small basketball court. It is surrounded by woods and has water views.