What’s happening to Main Street?

Is the glass half-full or half-empty in Vineyard Haven?

Signs in the window of Mix in Vineyard Haven advertise a going-out-of-business sale. — Stacey Rupolo

Recently, four stores in Vineyard Haven reported that they will be closing: Mix, Vardo, Juliska, and Moonstone, whose owners are retiring. The former location of the restaurant Waterside Market, which relocated further up Main Street, has remained vacant for a year and a half, and the store on Church Street where Beadniks was located has remained empty for two seasons. Talk on the street is that many are worried about “what’s happening on Main Street.”

So can this negative news be attributed to the normal churn of business, or does it represent something more serious? The simple answer is, it depends upon whom you ask. Some businesses report they are doing just fine in Vineyard Haven, others not so much. But nearly all report that there are some systemic problems that make turning a profit (or staying in business) difficult on Main Street, and far more challenging than in other down-Island towns.

Emily Milstein, an owner of the eclectic Union Street gift shop Mix, which recently closed, had been in business for 12 years in Vineyard Haven. “I had no intention of closing,” said Ms. Milstein, “but in the beginning of August I started looking at the numbers, and realized I wasn’t going to make it through the winter.”

By midsummer Ms. Milstein could see that business had slowed down substantially compared with the year before. “Years ago during the summer I was open until 10 at night … then 8 … then 7 … and this year we closed at 6. We’re closing because there’s no one here. It was a ghost town after 6 in July and August.”

Peter Simon, owner of the Simon Gallery on Main Street, guesses that his business was off between 15 and 20 percent this summer. (Although he claimed that his business had picked up some in September.) “We had about the worst August we’ve ever had,” Mr. Simon said. He posited that the weather could have been a factor. “We had a glorious spate of beautiful days,” Mr. Simon said. “People just wanted to go to the beach.” He added, “What we really need in town is more restaurants to bring more people in.”

More restaurants

Regardless of whom we talked to, the consensus was that the lack of fine dining choices in Vineyard Haven reduced the number of potential shoppers, especially in the evening. When a town’s main street area has several busy restaurants open in the evening, the sidewalks are filled with people after 5 pm — people window-shopping while they wait for a table, seeing things they want to buy, buying them and returning another day to buy more.

“Moxie turned into an ice cream parlor, and that certainly doesn’t help,” said Mr. Simon. Jeff Kristal, chairman of the Tisbury FinCom and the zoning board of appeals, and a Tisbury business owner, put an even finer point on it: “Moxie turning into an ice cream shop was another nail in the coffin.”

For 25 years, Daisy Kimberly owned and operated Alley Cat, a women’s clothing store on Main Street, where Soft as a Grape is now located; she closed the doors last year. “Business got a lot worse when the Internet came in,” said Ms. Kimberly. ”People would come in and take pictures of something so they could buy it online.” Then a few years ago Moxie, a high-end restaurant, burned down, and the fire forced the bookstore, Bunch of Grapes, to close down, while the Capawock movie theater across the street closed for renovations. “It was a tough period,” said Ms. Kimberly, “it was hard getting back from that. I don’t know, the town just feels shabby and faded.”

Ms. Kimberly is not the only one who thinks Vineyard Haven could use a little TLC. “The general character of the town is rundown … it’s kind of dirty,” Michael Levandowski said. Michael and his wife April own LeRoux at Home, a home goods store on Main Street and Leroux Gourmet, a specialty foods store across the street. Their business has always been strong, but this summer there was less store traffic than before.

One problem is parking. “While parking can be problematic in all the down-Island towns,” Mr. Levandowski said, “it’s particularly bad in Vineyard Haven. The ticketing is sporadic, so cars can tie up parking spots for hours. Also if you go down Main Street and can’t find a parking spot, you have to head out toward West Chop and circle all the way back to try to find a spot.” Mr. Levandowski added that changing the direction of Union Street may be working for the Steamship Authority, but it’s created a sometimes dangerous bottleneck where it intersects Main Street and redirects people from driving down Main Street.

“Vineyard Haven is not a pro-business community by any stretch of the imagination,” Mr. Levandowski said. “Other towns have taken tremendous steps and refurbished their public restrooms, beautified their public spaces; you feel like you’re in an enjoyable community. We’re being outdone by these other communities. We live in Vineyard Haven and love it, but if we want to go out to eat, we end up driving to Edgartown.”

“Revitalizing Vineyard Haven has to begin with attracting good restaurants, and to attract restaurants they have to be able to have a liquor license,” said Josh Goldstein, an owner of the Mansion House. “It enables them to make money and lets them compete with other towns.”

How goes the rest of the Island?

Claudia Lee owns Claudia’s Jewelry and has stores in Edgartown and Vineyard Haven. “We had a good summer in Edgartown, even better than last year,” said Ms. Lee, “but Vineyard Haven was down, down, down.”

In fact, according to various sources, both Oak Bluffs and Edgartown had very good summers, which weakens the argument that that the endless beach days siphoned business from the Island’s main streets. ”There’s been a lot of good growth this summer,” said Anne Cooke, member of the Edgartown Board of Trade. Christine Todd of the Oak Bluffs Association said that the general consensus was that Oak Bluffs merchants had a very good summer as well.

Not all the news was bad in V.H.

“We had a phenomenal summer,” said Josh Goldstein of the Mansion House. “The weather was so great, the economy seems to be rebounding.”

Elaine Barse, owner of the Green Room in Vineyard Haven, had a solid summer as well. “July was better than August,” she said. “July is the new August.” Ms. Barse credits the success of the store to “keeping it fresh. Customers are more sophisticated today. They’re more educated, they can compare items online. So we’re always looking for new ways to merchandise.”

Jane Chandler is the owner of the Beach House, a gift shop on Main Street. She’s seen a lot in the 33 years she’s been in business, and she reports that her business was very brisk this summer. “I feel that Vineyard Haven business is strong, especially now that we’ve resurrected the Vineyard Haven Business Association. There are so many strong family-owned businesses here on Main Street: Educomp, the Mansion House, Mocha Mott’s, Sioux Eagle, Claudia’s, Bunch of Grapes, LeRoux … and every year the shoulder season gets better and better.” She did agree that the evening business has been waning for some time, and not having another restaurant or two was part of the problem.

Investing in Main Street

Peter Cronig, owner of Cronig’s Real Estate, owns the building that housed the former Waterside Market restaurant. “We’ve been showing the space a lot,” said Mr. Cronig. “We want to keep it as a restaurant … as a year-round business, not a T shirt shop. It may take a little longer, but we want to do what’s best for the town.” Mr. Cronig has been in Vineyard Haven all his life, and feels that everything goes through cycles and Vineyard Haven is going to be just fine. On the top floor of his building, over the former Waterside Market, is a spacious and airy space, with light flowing in through large clerestory windows. Studs are up and construction is well underway. “It’s going to be a martial arts studio and a dance studio,” Mr. Cronig said.

Nancy Gardella, executive director of the Martha’s VIneyard Chamber of Commerce, shares Mr. Cronig’s optimism. “For years, Oak Bluffs seemed to be having a hard time,” Ms. Gardella said. “Edgartown went through a tough time as well. It’s all cyclical.”

Well, maybe.

There’s a reason for cycles

While business downturns can be cyclical, they don’t just happen in a vacuum. Jeff Kristal emphatically believes that businesses and the town have to be more proactive.

“The business climate is cold and chilly,” said Mr. Kristal. “We don’t have a strong business association; they spend money on things like putting flags out on Saturday afternoon or twinkle lights that only come on after dark, when no stores are open … people don’t come for flags and twinkle lights. Things that work are events like the dock dances in Edgartown or Tivoli Day in Oak Bluffs, that bring in lots of people.”

Mr. Kristal is also an outspoken proponent of liquor licenses for restaurants. “A liquor license lets restaurants make a profit so they can stay in business and stay open year-round, so people can invest in the community.”

There may be help on the horizon. At last April’s town meeting, the town voted to authorize the selectmen to petition the state legislature to add spirits to Tisbury’s beer and wine rules. The petition is currently in the third reading in the senate, and if approved, it could be on the ballot for a local vote, perhaps as early as this November. And if the proposal is passed, it could interrupt the cycle of no liquor licenses leading to fewer restaurants, leading to fewer shoppers, less business, and the deterioration of the downtown.

Time for action

Mr. Kristal believes there’s definitely hope for a resurgence in Vineyard Haven, but it would be a mistake to believe liquor licenses would be a silver bullet that would fix all the problems. “We have some infrastructure problems,” he said. “We have a limited sewer system, which restricts the expansion of business … redirecting the traffic on Union Street has been bad for business … we need creative ideas.

“And the answers have to come from the entire community — from the business community, from the town government — and now’s the time. We can’t wait until next spring, or we’ll have another summer like this one. It’s going to take some work.”