This island is as much a part of us as we are a part of it. This is where we work and live.
“Martha’s Vineyard is an island of intriguing diversity, and therein lies much of its fascination. Its geologic and human history, its weather and location combine to create many regions quite distinct from one another.” So begins Looking at the Vineyard, published by the Vineyard Open Land Foundation in 1972.
The endless Atlantic beaches of the south shore, the network of “great ponds,” the hilly uplands of the north shore, the sandplains to the east, the heathlands of Aquinnah, and the rural woodlands and fields of the interiors combine to make the Vineyard an extraordinary mosaic of sky, shore, fields, and dense vegetation.
For years the Vineyard has attracted a collection of inhabitants and visitors as diverse as its landscape. For many of us at South Mountain, the Vineyard was just a stop along the way until it grabbed us, held us, and kept us.
And here we’ve stayed.
Human communities tie us to a special place
Our commitment to concentrate our work here includes a commitment to do what we can to make this the best place possible for our children and grandchildren. The Vineyard is well known as a haven for celebrities and a center of wealth, but it is less well known as a diverse multicultural community full of rich social connections and people with many varied needs. Its rural roots, the Wampanoag Tribe, Brazilian, Jamaican and Eastern European cultures, the vibrant artistic community, the struggling fishing industry, the ascendant local food movement – all need our support to sustain the beauty and diversity of our island home.
The Vineyard maintains strong characteristics of community. It is safe, beautiful, and culturally rich. Many live here for its sense of community and some seasonal residents return year after year as much for the community as for the beauty. The profile of seasonal residents is changing. We have built a number of houses for people who originally imagined them as summer residences, only to see them become primary homes because the island offers such an appealing way of life. Many have sold the suburban house where they raised their families, rented or bought an apartment in the city, and now spend a larger part of each year living on the Vineyard. Some have begun to vote and do community work here, because they can have such a direct impact on their adopted community and therefore on their lives.
Collaboration for the common good
Islands are laboratories, and the Vineyard is a good one for recognizing, testing, and working to enhance the connections among small business, the built environment, and community, and for realizing the potential of commerce, local government, and non-profits to collaborate for the common good. The physical isolation may allow us to see things more clearly, because boundaries and limits are so well defined. Islands are semi-closed systems. When you get off the boat or the plane and set foot on the Vineyard, you know immediately that you are in a place with limitations. The social complexity combines in interesting ways with the fixed boundaries, creating conditions for innovative problem solving and community initiative. The Vineyard is a good place for developing models that visitors can bring back to their own communities. That’s part of what we do as a company.
A tradition of land conservation and stewardship
Islanders have always been aware that our unique environmental qualities are strong suits, tied directly to the character of the community and our economic vitality.
The Vineyard has a robust tradition of land conservation and stewardship. Private nonprofits have been buying and managing local land for decades. In 1986 island voters created the Martha’s Vineyard Land Bank, an unusual public body (there are still only half a dozen in the nation) that collects a two percent transfer fee on real estate purchases, except for some which are exempted, like the first $300,000 for first-time homebuyers. The funds are used to purchase, hold, and manage property for public access and environmentally appropriate use.
At the same time, people conservation has taken its place alongside land conservation as the community has united to try to solve the severe affordable housing crisis. We are beginning to understand that “continuity of generations” (as local ecologist Tom Chase calls it) is essential for keeping a place whole – it’s what keeps stories and traditions alive, maintains a population with a good understanding of the land and the climate, and provides a window to the past and the door to the future.
Sprawl has not gotten out of hand. The villages still feel like villages. To keep it that way we must make good choices. In many cases we have; in others we haven’t. For example, large-lot zoning initiatives adopted in the 1970’s led to the unintended consequence of partial suburbanization of a rural landscape. Inadequate transportation planning and funding has led to serious traffic problems. But the Vineyard remains in fair condition. Restoration is conceivable.
In diversity there is strength
In small communities people often wear many hats and work on several sides of the table simultaneously. This can lead to conflicts of interest, long-standing feuds, and small-mindedness, but it also can lead to wonderful synergies. Small towns where people know one another in different contexts have built-in safeguards – family connections, business associations, and the ever-active rumor mill – that help maintain balance. When you can’t hide, there’s more incentive to behave. People learn who they trust and who they can work with. The “many hats syndrome” creates a more informed citizenry and greater possibilities for shared cooperation among business, government, and nonprofits. The three sectors can weave together their different perspectives and abilities to energize positive change.
At SMCo one year, our employees included the chair of the regional planning commission, the vice chair of the regional housing authority, two board members of the Island Affordable Housing Fund, one town conservation commission member, two members of town zoning boards of appeal, and many other civic and local government participants. These individuals bring the community into the company and the company into the community.
Charting the course to the Island’s future
Some years back, under the auspices of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission some of us, and many other islanders, worked on a 50 year plan for the Vineyard called, simply, “The Island Plan.”
The purpose of the Island Plan was to chart a course to the kind of future the Vineyard community wants, and to outline a series of actions to help us navigate that course. It’s a blueprint and a call to action. When the Steering Committee first convened, the message was loud and clear, “Our shelves are full of well-meaning plans. We need to do something different – something bold and compelling that shakes up our current reality. We need a 50 year plan.”
Four themes emerged: economy, community, ecology, and land. The intention was to paint a picture of a synchronized philosophy of durable community, a timeless vision that cascades down to actionable goals and strategies that will benefit all of us who live on the Vineyard, full time and part, and all who visit.
Our CEO, John Abrams, served on the Steering Committee and chaired one of the nine work groups – Livelihood & Commerce.
About the process, John says:
“I spent more time working on the Plan than I wished to and less time than I should have. The Plan is not what I hoped it would be when we first began work. I hoped it would be so compelling it didn’t even seem like a plan but a great never-ending story. A truly inspiring plan. A mouth-watering five course meal. I have to say that we failed to make that. It was unrealistic, of course. It’s not one person’s dream meal; it’s a stew, added to and stirred by many. At times, during the process, I found myself somewhat heartbroken, because the opportunity was so great and I felt we were falling so short, but toward the end it got better, and I felt better. It’s not that bad a stew, but an iterative plan, one that we can work on in the decades to come, always re-considering, always re-shaping.”
There are 207 promising strategies within the plan. Together, they provide a wealth of possibilities that we can dig into over time, each as its time comes. A great beginning.
More than a decade later, the director of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, Adam Turner, is saying, loud and clear, “there are so many parts of this plan we have not yet tackled. Let’s get to it.” And we will.
Building the local economy
As we uncomfortably endure what Ira Glass calls the “post-truth era” and the great political unknowns ahead, we believe that our collective future depends on strong, prosperous, self-reliant local economies that carefully shepherd resources and promote social justice.
As our local commitment has developed, we have begun to understand the potential of regional economies to serve as an antidote to the negative consequences of globalization. As we struggle to understand and correct that which we cannot fully control, we can invest at once in that over which control is more direct: the process of localization.
Local enterprise has different aspirations and different constraints. Employee owned firms, social enterprises, community nonprofits, and community-owned cooperatives are tied to the areas in which they operate. They have greater accountability. And the people involved are part of the community. For these reasons such enterprise is more responsive to local social and environmental concerns, and they anchor jobs and investment locally.
Island vacationers and seasonal residents largely drive the Vineyard economy. There is a sense, among many, that there should be more balance, and that a more diverse year-round economy would be good for the island’s residents, seasonal and year-round alike.
Some of the attributes of such an economy might be (as described in the Island Plan):
- Increasing economic multipliers by fostering the circulation of money within the community
- Reducing economic leakage by encouraging more island spending
- Supporting local ownership so that those who are conducting commerce are anchored in the community
- Substituting imports through local production, especially of such essentials as food and energy
- Stimulating local investment
- Increasing year-round jobs with living wages
- Optimizing self-reliance, so that we become less dependent on distant forces and events
- Utilizing our historic character and geophysical attributes more fully by promoting off-season activity
- Creating an environment for lifetime learning
All these can combine to move us towards a diverse and prosperous year-round economy that enhances our community and environment, respects our character and history, and understands that although we are an island, we are also part of the larger world. We can imagine and develop the economy we would like rather than accepting the economy we have.
Local energy production provides new opportunities
Local energy production, an arena that we are deeply involved in, is a great example. As we make the essential and inevitable transition to renewable energy, the decentralized nature of new technologies has created new opportunities at both the residential and individual commercial scale and the community scale. Our current association with Vineyard Power, a community owned electrical cooperative that intends to use local renewable resources to generate a large fraction of the Vineyard’s energy, is a great example of a business and a community producer cooperative working together for the benefit of all. Formed in 2009 with the goal of all Vineyard ratepayers becoming members, the cooperative is working relentlessly to develop Vineyard Wind, a major offshore wind farm that will provide electricity at long-term stable rates.
Vineyard Power is a bold idea and Vineyard Wind is a major project that will take years to implement. It combines the need to create a democratic organization with a membership of thousands, and manage it, with the goal of completing the biggest development project in the history of the Vineyard. Big job. But it may just be possible!
Committed to the business of place
At South Mountain Company we treasure the opportunity to concentrate our primary endeavors on this complex little island that we’ve come to know well. It’s still a fine place to live and work. Committing to the business of place is an unconditional investment in the people and economy of a single locale. We’ve tossed our hat in the ring here and tied our future to the future of the Vineyard. We’re eager to see what comes next and pleased to be able to take part in the evolution of this place.
We’re staying close to home.