Entrepreneur Andrea Rogers hoped her annual artisans’ festival on Martha’s Vineyard would draw big crowds. Then came the president.
Only a handful of shoppers were wandering through the arts and crafts event founded by Rogers. The reason: President Barack Obama, usually a crowd magnet, was staying nearby and the Secret Service closed the road.
“I understand you have to protect the president,” Rogers said, “but you have to take into consideration the livelihood of people who work here year-round.”
If all politics is local, so are the pluses and minuses of a presidential visit. Where there are no detours, attitudes are decidedly more upbeat.
“I know there’s been some grousing but this is a good thing,” said Kerry Scott, a former selectman and owner of Good Dog Goods, which sells canine treats and gear in Oak Bluffs, one of six towns on the Massachusetts island where Obama and his family are vacationing. “We are a place for families and the first family is here.”
August is a busy time on the Vineyard, where the year-round population of 17,000 swells past 100,000 in the summer. Add an agricultural fair, Illumination Night (a festival of Chinese lanterns in Oak Bluffs), day-trippers drawn by a streak of spectacular weather, and retail sales soar, Scott said.
Since former President Bill Clinton first decided to make this his summer haunt 20 years ago, local elected officials and merchants say they’ve been able to notice an boost in the local economy sparked by a presidential presence.
As one example, Obama’s dog, Bo, has driven sales of mugs and shirts featuring images of the breed, the Portuguese Water Dog, Scott said. Emblazoned on one popular shirt: “BoBama, the new dog in town.”
Tourists spent $122 million in Martha’s Vineyard businesses that employed 1,200 people, according to the latest state figures that don’t include foreign visitors.
“When Obama comes, you hear sirens and it’s better than the circus coming into town,” said Alan Schweikert, who owns Ocean Park Realty in Oak Bluffs. “You do get the feeling that it makes us unique and desirable.”
Schweikert, who saw the president hit golf balls at Farm Neck Golf Club driving range on Aug. 11, said visits by both Obama and Clinton have raised the profile of the island.
“I can’t see how it doesn’t help,” said John O’Connell, broker and owner of Vineyard Realty Group in Edgartown. “People might say ‘if the president’s going, it must be a pretty cool place.’”
Median home prices on Martha’s Vineyard have increased six percent in the first half of the year compared with a year earlier, according to The Warren Group, a Boston real-estate tracker. Prices on Nantucket, the other resort island off the Massachusetts coast, fell 5 percent in the same period.
Massachusetts State Representative Timothy Madden, a Democrat whose district includes both Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, said the Obama visits heighten competition between the two vacation spots.
“There is a friendly rivalry,” said Madden in a telephone interview from a ferry heading to Nantucket. “When Obama is on the Vineyard, people in Nantucket notice. They say, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if he were here?’”
The Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce website has drawn more traffic because of Obama, according to Executive Director Nancy Gardella.
In 2009, the first year when the White House said he and his family would show up, there were 70,000 more viewers than the same week a year earlier. In 2010 and 2011, the news of his impending arrival yielded 45,000 more clicks.
“We know that those hits are going to result in people coming,” Gardella said. “It is all good for our economy.”
In Edgartown, on the east end of the island, reservations have been booked for two weeks at L’Etoile, a tony French restaurant.
“This week has been crazy,” hostess Caroline Malloy said between answering calls to confirm reservations.
Malloy said she waited in traffic for 45 minutes earlier this week. The upside: she got to meet the president at a local golf course.
“The Secret Service wanded us and then he was there,” she said. “He gave me a high-five!”
Josh Earnest, an Obama spokesman, told reporters that the Secret Service is working to “minimize” the impact its security precautions have on the island.
“Frankly, the president is hopeful that everybody has just as much fun as he does,” Earnest said.
Ulysses S. Grant was the first sitting president to step ashore, in August 1874, according to Martha’s Vineyard Magazine. The next was almost 90 years later when John F. Kennedy, who grew up frequenting the island, became president, the magazine said.
The Clintons started coming in August 1993 and that’s when interest in the island spiked, said Gail Barmakian, one of five elected selectmen in Oak Bluffs.
“Clinton had a larger impact because he was always out and about,” Barmakian said. “The Obamas are more quiet and private.”
In his three previous visits as president, Obama and first lady Michelle stayed at Blue Heron Farm, a more secluded estate that didn’t require road closures by the Secret Service. That property was sold in 2011 to British architect Norman Foster for $22.4 million.
“Having a great time,” Obama shouted at reporters, as he rode through Manuel F. Correllus State Forest in West Tisbury yesterday with Michelle Obama and their daughters, Sasha and Malia.
Before the girls arrived from summer camp Aug. 15, Obama mostly limited his outings to restaurants and golf. He’s so far forgone some of the traditional stops made by the family, including dropping in on the Bunch of Grapes Bookstore in Vineyard Haven to pick up summer reading as well as stops at local ice cream parlors.
On Aug 14, he attended a party at the vacation home of Comcast Corp. Chief Executive Officer Brian Roberts, a past donor to Democratic congressional candidates, and dined with Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat, at State Road, a contemporary American restaurant.
He’s golfed at private clubs across the island with partners including Roberts, World Bank President Jim Kim, and former U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, former UBS Americas Chairman Robert Wolf, and Democratic lawyer Vernon Jordan, who owns a house on the island.