What happens when the president of the United States descends on an island in the height of the summer tourist season? Crowds, gawkers, gridlock, fund raisers. But there's also a bit of economic stimulus.
It's hard to tease out the amount of revenue President Barack Obama's third visit to Martha's Vineyard will bring to the island -- Obama's vacation coincides with such August highlights as the county fair, the fireworks and illumination night in Oak Bluffs. Some store and restaurant owners claim to be so busy this time of year they don't notice any impact. Still, the Chamber of Commerce expects the visit to be a net positive.
Last year, the Bunch of Grapes bookstore on Main St. in Vineyard Haven had two of its best sales days following Obama's book-buying excursion with daughters Malia and Sasha, said owner Dawn Braasch.
Not everyone sees an immediate boost. At the Martha's Vineyard Airport, general aviation business -- everything except commercial and military flights -- falls about 75 percent during the first family's 10-day stay compared with the same period in 2008 because of temporary restrictions on air space, said airport manager Sean Flynn. That means lost fuel sales and parking and landing fees.
There is an offset, only part of it measured in current dollars. The Coast Guard helicopters and C-17 military transport planes that shuttle in "assets" for the president's stay buy fuel. Scenic photos of the Vineyard on the nightly news attract visitors to the island. And frequent visits from presidents can't hurt one of the airport's crucial revenue streams: grant funding from the Federal Aviation Administration that Flynn says has amounted to $27 million in the last five years. Without that, the money to maintain the airport would have to come from the island community (i.e. taxes).
The Steamship Authority, which provides year-round ferry service to the island, didn't experience an uptick in travelers because of the president's visit. Nor did it have to run extra ferries to accommodate secret service vehicles and state troopers this year. But "long term, a presidential visit creates an awareness about the island as a destination," said Wayne Lamson, general manager of the Steamship Authority.
Some see the presidential impact waning. Alley's General Store in West Tisbury tends to attract crowds hoping to catch a glimpse of the president's motorcade as it passes by en route to Blue Heron Farm in Chilmark, where the first family is staying. Last year, "people used to camp out on the steps and wait," said manager Rhonda Backus. Waiting means "impulse food purchases" as well as sales of toys, hardware supplies, fishing tackle and knick knacks. This year, though, "there's not as much camping out as last year," Backus said.
That complaint is hardly unique to Alley's. The Vineyard may feel like it's worlds away from Washington, but Obama can't escape the nation's economic problems.
(Caroline Baum is a Bloomberg View columnist)