Economics 101: The fluff factor


To the Editor:

The headlines in the local papers this past week were predictable: Strong black type proclaimed that a strong economy is forecast for the coming summer, but troubling labor shortages are causing anxiety. The labor shortages were attributed to the lack of affordable housing, although students from foreign (almost exotic) countries have arrived to take up the slack. But there is another looming problem which we need to seriously consider. While it is true that the lack of affordable housing is dramatically impacting the Island, there is another factor as well — and it is a much harder nut to crack. This is our economy.

As we all know, our economy is based on smoke and mirrors, fluff factor: second homes, tourism, the real estate market, and all the ancillary and peripheral businesses. You will notice that most are seasonal. Thus many Islanders have to patch together several seasonal jobs in order to earn an annual income while moving seasonally to keep ahead of the eviction notice.

As the past 10 days have unfolded, the rush to summer has built up exponentially, and the amount and rush of traffic on the roads has built up as well. With a short spring after a harsh and extended winter, the contractors and merchants — even the farmers — have found themselves caught short.

Last week, as merchants were arranging their wares on shelves and decorating their windows, painters were scraping and sanding the window frames, prepping for a coat that they hoped to apply before the first shoppers. Inevitably the shoppers arrived first, entering through doors propped open to keep people from brushing against a still-wet coat of paint. Meanwhile, road crews were out mowing and pruning the sides of the roads, while crews were repairing and even repaving some roads.

On the second-home and tourist front, homeowners (if they could get a reservation on the ferry) were arriving to clean and gussy up their houses and to check on projects. Many houses are part of the very lucrative (for them) rental market, and as has been reported, many houses are already fully booked for summer. Some homeowners arrived to find winter projects unfinished as contractors struggled to catch up with delays caused by winter storms, or rushed to answer calls for emergency repairs where the harsh weather had caused damage.

As we all know, Memorial Day weekend is actually the shakedown cruise for many Island businesses, and there are still several weeks to go before the real summer season begins. Most, if not all, problems, delays, and deficiencies will get sorted out: Houses and businesses will begin to sparkle (and the toilets to flush), the roadsides will be cleaned up and trimmed, seasonal stores will get staffed and stocked, potholes and crumbled edges will get repaired, and ruffled feathers will smooth down.

However, this year there seem to already be a large number of summer visitors from all over. It is as if May is our new June (and we already know that June is our new July, and July our new August).

Of course these visitors provide a large opening burst to the season, and many merchants will be clapping their hands with glee, although after a few weeks of long hours and too few staff, they may feel otherwise. But to ask the hard question, does this seasonal economy help with our largest year-round problems? I don’t think so.

On Memorial Day I was listening on WCAI to a program about innovative businesses on Cape Cod. A business named Hydroid was mentioned as one of about 80 Cape businesses which hires over 100 people (Hydroid currently employs 147 people). It is a high-tech business for automated underwater exploration devices and techniques, so it fits in nicely with our world-class ocean science community just across Vineyard Sound. In fact, Hydroid provided a REMUS system for WHOI, as well as other sophisticated pieces of innovative gadgetry. It is located in Pocasset.

The program went on to report that while the bulk of the Cape economy is made up of small businesses employing 4 to 8 people, the year-round ripple effect — all positive — of a business such as Hydroid is incalculable. Particularly as that business, and others, are year-round, sustainable, broad-based, and green, and they provide good wages with benefits. Honestly, what is there not to like?

This small example highlights what many Island planners and leaders know (but haven’t yet begun to address), and that is that our economy is strangling us — too many cars, too many people, and totally unsustainable. Too many of our jobs — often seasonal and/or part-time — carry with them no benefits (no health care, no pensions, no anything), although they may have a reasonable wage. Meanwhile, homeowners are encouraged to charge rents that make one’s eyes water (can you really enjoy a house that costs $25,000 a week?), and much of that money goes off-Island rather than being thoughtfully reinvested into projects and businesses that truly benefit the Island and Islanders.

So here is my annual plea to Island planners and leaders: We need serious sessions with some clever and innovative lateral thinkers — folks who understand and appreciate islands — as well as a constructive, well-funded planning effort to modify our economy so that it works for us. There is a role model we can look to for guidance, the Island Institute up in Rockland, Maine, because they seem to get it.

So how do we come up with a new mousetrap? It can be something like a call center (why should Comcast customers be talking to someone in Mumbai, India?), or a group figuring out how to truly eliminate ticks (plenty of research material here), or even perhaps how to produce one of the products that our high school science students devise? It could even be a mousetrap modified to catch rats, an “energy efficient” bike, or a way to deal with red tide. Or, if you look back into the past, Woodchips, which was just one (and very successful) of Ralph and Millie Briggs’ businesses, or ORE (Ocean Research Equipment), started by the late David Frantz in 1961, could provide examples to help set a new course.

Best wishes, put your thinking cap on, and see you again when summer is winding down.

Virginia Crowell Jones

West Tisbury