Bears Arrive in Nantucket

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The New York Sun

It’s not just Wal-Mart shoppers who are feeling the pinch. The American consumer, that mighty Atlas of the world economy, is faltering. Nowhere is the evidence more visible, and perhaps more surprising, than on the island of Nantucket.

Word on the street (Main Street, that is) is that Nantucket has priced itself out of contention. Cab drivers, always oracular, assert that restaurant and hotel prices finally got so high that they’ve driven away the traditional family on vacation. Is it possible?

This is the summer high point and, to the naked eye, everything seems normal. Traffic is backed up along the cobblestone streets with every ferry that comes ashore, and finding a parking spot at the Stop & Shop, the island’s largest grocery store, is as maddening as ever. But that indicator itself may be misleading.

According to the longtime owner of the ‘Sconset Market, Mark Donato, the grocery business has been booming this summer.His view is informed by 29 years of running one of the more successful enterprises on the island, as well as three restaurants over that time span. He contends that families are indeed venturing onto Nantucket for a week or two, but cooking at home to save money. He has loaded up his shop, normally devoted to selling the top-rated croissants and blueberry muffins on the island, with a good range of chickens, steaks, and burgers, sales of which are running at three times last year’s level.

“Restaurants are hurting,” Mr. Donato, a member of the Nantucket Restaurant Association, says.”Things are busy now, but they can’t make up for a lousy June and July.”

Small wonder. Like restaurants everywhere, those on Nantucket have jacked up prices, with almost all charging more than $30 for most entrees.To the dismay of many, local spots are offering up ever more complicated food to justify the high prices.It’s almost impossible to get a simple piece of grilled fish on the island. Instead, menus list “sautéed fluke with soft polenta, littleneck clams, linguica and smoked tomato broth”or “panko crusted East Coast halibut with coconut kaffir lime broth.” Such dishes not only strain the budget (and IQ), they are not exactly family-friendly, either.

This season, one of the few remaining low-priced family eateries in town, Vincent’s, was sold to a new group that promptly reopened with a classy spot that reminds some of an Upper East Side restaurant, complete with fancy food and a long, narrow space. The burgeoning rent paid for downtown commercial space almost requires such an upgrade, Mr. Donato says.

It’s not just the restaurants that have seen a fall-off in business. Anecdotally, sales at the numerous gift shops lining Main Street are off 10% or so. And demand for rental housing is soft, as are hotel bookings. Though weekend rooms in August are sold out, during the week most of the inns and hotels have vacancies.

Don Polvere owns Nantucket Accommodations, a group that helps visitors find rooms at 95% of the bed and breakfasts and hotels on-island. Though his business is off only 6% this year, he says that for many B&Bs, bookings are down as much as 12%,in spite of a gradual shrinkage of available rooms.”Twenty years ago we had 2,000 rooms to rent; now there are 980,” Mr. Polvere said.The rising price of real estate has meant that many B &Bs have been converted to private homes.

House rentals are off between 10% and 30% from last year, even though more large families are seeking accommodations. Groups of two or more families are increasingly getting together to rent, and it’s easy to see why.B &B rooms go for $280 a night on average, and a lack of dining facilities means guests have to eat out.That adds up for a family of four. Still, it beats staying at the Wauwinet Inn, a luxury resort where a double room currently goes for $850.

Statistics confirm that the number of visitors to the island fell earlier in the season. In June and July, passengers coming to Nantucket on the passenger ferry totaled 152,823, down from 157,753 a year earlier. Like many vacation destinations, Nantucket has never quite recovered from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.The June-July total was 177,991 in 2001.

Even the indefatigable real estate market has softened.According to Ryan Wagner at Windwalker Real Estate, the number of transactions so far this year is off 23%. Sales volumes totaled $553 million in the first half, off from $612 million a year ago.Predictably, the very high end is still strong. As Mr. Wagner politely puts it, “Buyers of premium properties on Nantucket are insulated from the issues concerning buyers at the low end.”

Mr. Polvere sums it up. “There just aren’t as many people coming to Nantucket. It’s expensive to get here, and people are watching their discretionary spending,” he said.

Then why can’t we find a parking spot?

peek10021@aol.com


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