Economy Here Remains Steady
Retailers and Bankers on Island Report Slight Increases in Sales Over Last Summer; Forecast for Autumn Very Strong
By JACK SHEA
Business is here and more is coming.
Island merchants overall report they are up six to 12 per cent over last year at this point in the season and visitor indicators for August and beyond are strong, most business owners say.
While inflation and price increases may inflate real growth, merchants say they are generally buoyed by June and strong July Fourth business - and particularly by future bookings for August and early fall.
Steamship Authority bookings year to date are up two per cent through June for passengers and flat for automobiles, according to information provided by Vineyard SSA governor Marc Hanover. The boat line increase is small but includes May and June bookings which were below a year ago. According to the Martha's Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, Cape Air business is up eight per cent this year.
Real estate continues to struggle with double-digit declines in sales and mortgage activity. Rental vacancies are high right now even as hoteliers report strong bookings going forward. But early bad news in wedding bookings has turned dramatically. An informal survey of 45 hospitality venues by the chamber of commerce indicate that most places are virtually booked from August through October, according to Nancy Gardella, chamber executive director.
Maggie White, realtor, innkeeper and president of the Edgartown board of trade agrees. "My bookings are terrific right now and going forward," she said, adding that she senses a new surge of energy in Edgartown and among her confreres in the business community this year, particularly among gallery owners.
Vineyard business owners generally hold their breath as the summer approaches. Most speak conservatively about their business prospects until the post-Labor Day tally. But optimism reared its head often in interviews this week and support for ideas such as expanding the shoulder season drew interest.
Most commonly-watched indices are positive. Commercial checking deposits are even to up eight to nine per cent at area banks. Chris Wells, executive vice president at Dukes County Savings Bank, Paul Watts, executive vice president of Bank of Martha's Vineyard and Fielding Cooper, chief executive officer of Edgartown National bank, all provided overviews of the business climate.
"Last year may have been the bottom," Mr. Wells said, adding: "Our sense is that business is even now. Business checking account deposits are even with last year [in all categories], though they spiked after a very strong July Fourth period. Deposits are down about one per cent so far in July." He said this reflects a small post-July Fourth slump. Mr. Wells said real estate sales in the middle range ($750,000 to $1.5 million) are under pressure. "We're getting financing requests for $1 million and above rather than $500,000 and under, he said.
Mr. Watts painted a similar picture. "In the hospitality business nobody is having a great year but they are consistently ahead of last year," he said, adding: "It's an okay year and okay is good. June was a banner month and July is slightly softer." He noted that Vineyard traffic is weather dependent and what he called "Boston TV weather report dependent." He also said:
"Retail is up, down and all over the board. Those with a handle on things are doing okay." Asked what constitutes a good handle, Mr. Watts replied: "Changing inventory, even if they're just changing displays and moving stock around and having enough staff. People who work their business get rewarded and that's especially true on the Vineyard."
He also said building and construction remains strong and while real estate is not, "the pipeline is filling nicely for the third quarter. People may be holding out as prices decline. They may be negotiating longer."
Mr. Moore also pointed to hopeful signs. "Restaurant and retail business seems to be up. The weather has been good, We look closely at overall deposits as a barometer. While large depositors can skew the numbers, June 2006 to June 2007 looks to be up eight to nine per cent," he said, adding: "But of course last year was down."
Island retailers who have been successful over time feel good about 2007. Tim Dobel, co-owner of Mocha Mott's, said: "Oak Bluffs is busier than last year, Vineyard Haven is down a little - there's no parking anymore. They could not have made a bigger botch in rehabbing the parking lot by Stop & Shop. First, it was the Main street rehab which hurt, then the Stop & Shop rehab. We're down 125-20 spaces." He credited good weather and his brand marketing efforts including, marketing more hats and shirts and some ecologically-aware moves, including offering CO2-free Peruvian coffee and pouring into corn-based cups, rather than oil-based plastic.
Mr. Dobel is also a fan of developing a longer shoulder season. "Peak times pay the bills. You make your money during shoulder periods," he said, noting that the periods vary by Island town. In Oak Bluffs the season in May and June, while in Vineyard Haven it is September and October, he said.
Being an institution is good too. At Murdick's Fudge, a 100-year-old business with roots in Mackinaw Island, Mich., June was strong, July Fourth "amazing," proprietor Mike McCourt said. With stores in Michigan, where auto industry cuts has affected business, Mr. McCourt offered a philosophical tip to retail colleagues who may be struggling on the Vineyard:
"If anyone thinks we're struggling, go to Michigan. You'll change your mind," he said.