The good old summer rundown

by Dan Wolf

Fri, 09/16/2011


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A favorite post-Labor Day, Cape and Islands pastime is the inevitable analysis and assessment of the summer economy:

How’d we do compared to last year, compared to our hopes, compared to our imperfect memories of how it used to be, compared to other regions, compared to other sectors of our own economy?

It’s an exercise we practice every year, which pretty much guarantees an intriguing conversation about who we are and how we’re evolving. So here’s my rundown on the summer of 2011:

There were a lot of solid, good results for us this year, so overall, strength though not record-breaking numbers. Much as last year, we’ve defied gloom and national doldrums.

Good weather in the early part of the season helped, though less good weather come August hurt. Irene snatched people away but didn’t knock us out – that last weekend of August always is a finicky moment anyway, still summer but never quite as strong as we hope. Irene’s swerve maybe even helped Labor Day a bit, as people realized we weren’t wiped away and came on back.

Lodging (both motels and summer rentals) did well, as did restaurants; people need places to sleep, and have proven they’ll eat out no matter what. Less strong across the boards was the retail sector; tight times slow down non-essential purchases, especially at the higher end. That trend might express itself more during this increasingly important fall “shoulder season,” when visitors tend to shop more, beach less, and not orient around family activities as much.

So there are some broad strokes, and the colors are pleasing. But my concern for the future is how national trends will play out in our communities, continuing to shift and shape our economy, making our district less accessible and affordable, forcing us to rely on fewer and fewer people to make our ends meet.

I say this because the national figures are so disturbing:

The top one percent of our nation now earns 24 percent of total income. As recently as 1976, the top one percent earned 9 percent of the nation’s total.

The top one percent now owns 60 percent of the national net worth. In the 1970s, that figure was closer to 30 percent.

The top five percent now accounts for almost 40 percent of all purchases made.

The fundamentals of our seasonal economy have shifted as buying power has concentrated. While we have always attracted wealthy people to the Cape and Islands, we also built a broad base of visitors and second-home owners who don’t fall into that category, middle class in the true sense of the term. With solid salaries, paid vacations, and iron-clad pensions, many have been able to buy and rent, celebrate summer and then settle into comfortable retirement.

This has created development pressure on all of us, but it also has made our communities more diverse, our schools better funded. It drove up our real estate prices but also created opportunity for local business. It meant we weren’t solely an enclave for the most privileged, remaining a real place with great beauty but also all the problems of real life. We need to solve those problems, but we wouldn’t have it any other way.

When our economy becomes dependent on such a small sliver of our population, we become vulnerable. That affects every aspect of our lives, from tourism to property values and all the essentials that make a community viable and affordable.

We can turn this around, by recognizing what is happening and using government to invest in building back a middle class, focusing on good jobs that offer real opportunity and challenge, coupled with great education. We need to require the most fortunate among us to pay their fair share to accomplish that, a small price for their amazing success.

When we do, summers to come will remain joyful and diverse, as will our year-round community. And when we share our inevitable post-Labor Day rundowns, we’ll have plenty to celebrate.