We Must Stop The Vacation Industrial Complex: No On 59

George H. Spencer, III •

To the editor: Though I do not vote on Nantucket, I write this with 60 summers of perspective and over 150 summers of history within my family. I have been actively involved with ACK Now from the outset and am very proud of what we have been able to accomplish in terms of educating the island on the dangers of short-term rentals (STRs) and the role they are playing in decimating the year-round community on the island. Controlling STRs is certainly not a panacea to everything that ails the island but it’s a good start. The upcoming Annual Town Meeting and election are crucial to wresting power away from what I have come to call the Vacation Industrial Complex and codifying the ruling of Judge Vhay which provides for the legal rental of one’s property as an accessory use.

The upcoming vote at Town Meeting on Articles 59 and 60 is more than a vote on STRs, it is really a vote on what your vision is for the future of Nantucket. Do you want a community that strives for Mayberry or do you want a community controlled by a Vacation Industrial Complex that has given us an overpriced carnival theme park?

While researching the STR industry at ACK Now we realized how much of that industry was owned by off-island investors (80 percent); how few of the workers that supported those STRs were actually paid a sustainable wage; as well as the benefits that were being bestowed on STRs by the federal, state, and municipal tax codes. We also began to understand that many other industries on the island share common characteristics.

  • The Boat Basin, White Elephant (also the Harbor House), the Wauwinet and much of downtown commercial real estate is all controlled by a multi-billion dollar holding company that owns properties spread across the country.
  • Marine Hardware is owned by private equity.
  • The Blue Flag Group is owned by a consortium of off-island investors (don’t believe me go look at the ownership syndicate VC and hedge fund investors which is on the application for liquor licenses). The same is increasingly true for many other island businesses.

The people who run these businesses have a fiduciary responsibility to their investors to maximize profits. They do not take a particularly long-term view as to what is good for the island. The result is that Nantucket is evolving as any colony does - the riches of the island are being sucked off of it by off-island imperialists. Go to any third-world country dependent on tourism you will see the same pattern - a few wealthy people; no middle class; and an army of laborers that are living in squalor. For years Nantucket had a policy of no chain stores. This enabled local merchants and entrepreneurs to thrive and a middle and upper middle class developed -- the wealth stayed on the Island. Today we have an economy that is increasingly controlled by faceless capital and a product that is commoditizing. Say what you want to about Walter Beinecke – but his vision was to keep the island exclusive and sell linens from Nantucket Looms and dress coats from Murray’s - not tee shirts making references to limericks.

The people who really built modern Nantucket did so with an eye toward philanthropy. This is from where the Nantucket Conservation Foundation and the NHA (eg the whaling museum) emanate. These forefathers put the well-being of the island before making a buck. Their arrival every summer meant that merchants like Glidden’s Seafood were able to feed less fortunate families throughout the winter. In the late 60’s a group of seasonal residents banded together with John Manning to save what was the known as The Hither Creek Boatyard (now known as Madaket Marine). The business was failing, and they believed that it was important for the island to have a boatyard (that also acted as a de facto Coast Guard) on the west end of the island. The business was marginally profitable at best through the 70s and 80s. When these gentlemen began to die in the late 80s and early 90s they decided to sell it. They sold it not to the highest bidder - a real estate developer - but rather to another syndicate that was led by the scions of a long-tenured seasonal family who promised to keep the operation as a boatyard. This is the type of thinking that is very scarce on the island we are living on today.

Myself and many of my friends long for the days when you could sail sailboats on the inner harbor, ride bikes all over the island in day-long scavenger hunts, and when a trip to Great Point did not resemble the “It’s a Small World” ride at Disney World. This is a world that has been trampled by the Vacation Industrial Complex with its army of minimum wage workers living in squalor; fueled by off-island capital; and aided and abetted by conflicted public employees and elected officials.

When you go to Town Meeting to vote next week and when you vote in the election later in the month, I urge you to think about what you want Nantucket to look like. Do you want Mayberry or do you want the junk-show parking lot that the Vacation Industrial Complex has delivered to us. We aren’t going to put the genie back in the bottle in one year or probably during the rest of my lifetime but we need to start somewhere. Vote “NO” on 59 and 60 and then vote for candidates who champion a more traditional version of Nantucket.

George H. Spencer, III

Editor's note: Spencer is a board member of ACK Now, but says he wrote the letter as an independent citizen and not on behalf of the organization. 

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