Reinforcing Nantucket Customs

Sponsor: Nantucket Department of Culture and Tourism
Sponsor Liaison: Janet Schulte, Gregg Tivnan
Student Team: Owen Aguirre, Nick Franzini, Samuel Hopkins
Abstract: Nantucket has evolved a set of customs and bylaws to protect the island’s beaches, open spaces, sense of community, and historic character. During COVID, enforcement of some bylaws was relaxed to allow dining, art, advertising, and vending on the streets and sidewalks. Town officials worry that reestablishing the Nantucket norms after the pandemic may be difficult. The goals of this study were to define what makes Nantucket culture special, evaluate stakeholder concerns, and develop educational materials. We found that islanders want to preserve most customs but are also in favor of expanding outdoor dining options. We created radio PSAs, posters, and a list of recommendations to reinforce adherence to island bylaws, customs, and conventions.

Reinforcing Nantucket’s Customs Final Report

Reinforcing Nantucket’s Customs Presentation

Nantucket Residents Survey (Responses)

Nantucket Customs Survey (Responses)

Radio Public Service Announcements

COVID-19 Business Guide

Back-to-Normal Business Guide

Revisions to Island Guide

Nantucket Poster

Executive Summary

Many communities in the United States and elsewhere have turned to tourism as a source of income. These communities rely on their historic sites, scenic vistas, and other unique local assets to draw visitors. Unfortunately, economic development resulting from an influx of tourism can threaten the very resources that attract tourists in the first place. Tourist destinations must balance the preservation of their local resources while continuing to develop commerce. The aim of this project is to assist the Town of Nantucket in keeping this balance.

Nantucket is a small island with a big reputation off the coast of Massachusetts. The island maintains a small-town charm that attracts visitors and “washashores” alike for its beautiful scenery, historic character, and tight-knit community. These assets are protected and promoted by many local customs and conventions, some of which are enshrined in Nantucket’s bylaws. Many Town officials, businesspeople, and residents are concerned that an increasing lack of awareness of and compliance with some customs and conventions have been changing on the island in ways that jeopardizes the long-term survival of Nantucket’s unique culture. The objectives of this project were to define what makes Nantucket culture special, evaluate stakeholders’ concerns of cultural degradation, and develop outreach strategies and educational materials to reinforce adherence to island bylaws, customs and conventions.

We conducted a series of interviews and surveys for key stakeholders on Nantucket to gather community perspectives on Nantucket’s culture and how it changed over time. We interviewed 26 members of the Nantucket community, including Town officials, businesspeople, representatives from non-profit organizations, and other key stakeholders. We developed our initial list of interviewees using recommendations from the Department of Culture and Tourism and expanded it through recommendations from interviewees themselves. We created two surveys for residents and business owners, which the Nantucket Civic League, Town Administration, and Chamber of Commerce graciously distributed on the island. We received 194 responses for our residents’ survey, and 6 responses from our survey of business owners. From our interview and survey responses, we developed a clear picture of Nantucket’s cultural identity and identified community concerns regarding how Nantucket’s culture may have changed in recent years and especially as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ‘identity’ of Nantucket carries different meanings to different people based on their experiences of visiting and living on the island. A significant majority of the interviewees and survey respondents indicated they were not born on Nantucket, and otherwise “washed ashore” from the mainland, emphasizing the island’ strong allure. Interviewees frequently mentioned visiting the island in their earlier years, in some cases were introduced to island culture by friends, family or significant others, and never wanting to leave. When asked about the yearning to live on Nantucket, interviewees spoke fondly about Nantucket’s rich whaling history, its meticulously preserved architecture, its beautiful beaches and scenery, relaxing ambiance, and the tight-knit community where everybody knows everybody. Many noted that ‘Grey Lady’ is a tough place to live in, being isolated by 30 miles of sea and economically challenging to afford, but the challenges are worth it all. Some mentioned that regulations in place to protect Nantucket’s history and culture may be at times rigid and tough, but they recognized that many are necessary to keep the island the way residents love it. However, Nantucket’s regulations and resources are strained by the island’s growing popularity.

Nantucket continues to experience the growth pains from its own success as the island copes with increasing attention from off-island. Overtourism was often used as a word to describe Nantucket’s challenges in handling more tourists, but we found that tourists were not the only concern. Several interviewees expressed concern that the community is moving away from the shared values and respect of times past. There is a new generation of newcomers who are drawn to Nantucket to get “the perfect Instagram photo” or “bragging rights” of owning a property on Nantucket. These newcomers do not integrate into the community like previous generations of Nantucketers have because they do not respect local culture, but merely use it as an emblem of social status. On another front, Nantucket’s community identity is degraded by off-island businesses and investors looking to profit off Nantucket’s lodging industry to the detriment of the local community. Off-island businesses and investors represent the 80% of the short-term rental properties on the island according to ACKNow, and the number of properties they hold is growing (ACKNow, 2020). Long-time Nantucketers are being squeezed out of local communities that are being transformed by the proliferation of short-term rental properties with constant turnover of visitors and unfamiliar faces. Visitors do not contribute to the community in the same way a Nantucketer might, for they are not the ones who teach at local schools, fix your plumbing, or attend Town Meetings. In addition to short term renting, middle and lower income Nantucketers face growing competition over space with millionaires and conservation efforts. As a result, the Nantucket community is heading towards a time when its “washashores” will become its “wash-aways.”

Just as the community may be changing, some of Nantucket’s customs and conventions no longer maintain the same glory they once held. Nantucket has a significant event culture, as events are an economic driver for the business community. However, interviewees and residents shared the perspective that Nantucket’s event culture is becoming too big. COVID may have molded this perspective, by pausing many events and creating worry over attending social gatherings. Nevertheless, some interviewees mentioned that the hold placed on events this year demonstrated a renewed sense of Nantucket’s olden days as a quiet vacation destination where one could go to get away to relax, take things slow, and explore the island at their own pace. Members of the business community noted that tourists are staying for shorter periods of time and that stays in AirBnBs are on the rise, bolstering claims that visitors are only coming to Nantucket to experience its events. While this may be a national trend, it still means that visitors are taking less time to get to know Nantucket like they used to. Many interviewees indicated concern over what happens at the events too, believing Nantucket’s traditional events are being drowned in alcohol consumption and partying. Figawi, the Stroll, Wine Festival, and Daffodil Festival are all major events on Nantucket interviewees felt have become saturated with alcohol and drinking to the point it distracts from the cultural significance of the events themselves. It is undeniable that alcohol is a major source of revenue for businesses and nonprofits alike during events, but many believe it is propagating Nantucket’s reputation as a place to drink and party. Emphasis should instead be placed on Nantucket as a family-friendly destination, not as a weekend block party.

The COVID pandemic has stopped many island events but raised several other concerns as the island has adapted its customs and conventions to stay afloat. In order to spur the economy in dire times, the Town of Nantucket has relaxed regulations or turned a blind eye to others to enable businesses to attract more patrons. One major new development is outdoor dining in public spaces, the regulations for which the Select Board suspended this year. In some cases, streets were closed to provide a protected venue for diners. Perhaps surprisingly, many long-time Nantucketers favored the change, feeling that it brought new vibrancy Downtown, while others expressed worry over that this may exacerbate the problems of parking and congestion or may encourage more drinking in the streets. However, the majority of interviewees and survey respondents would like to see this outdoor dining continue in the future, so long as the Town can determine an appropriate process to address citizen concerns and treat all dining establishments fairly. Additionally, during the pandemic, businesses have put out unapproved signs and merchandise displays as ways to attract more customers. Nantucket maintains regulations for these signs for good reason, as signs and displays obstruct sidewalks and detract from Downtown’s historic character. In contrast with their views about outdoor dining, many interviewees and survey respondents did not want to see the added signage and displays continue after the pandemic. Some business owners shared the feeling, agreeing that the practice was not a part of and did not contribute to Nantucket’s character. Signage and merchandise displays are not an issue limited to COVID though, as islanders noted that it has encroached into Downtown in previous years. This highlights that enforcement of bylaws, rules and regulations need to be strengthened regardless of the pandemic.

Although many chafe at the existing slate of rules and regulations, it is clear that the Town needs to devote more resources to protect Nantucket’s culture and customs in the future. We found that it is difficult for enforcement agencies to appropriately manage the multitude of possible violations because Nantucket’s bylaws, rules, and regulations are incredibly detailed and simultaneously vast. Not all people are aware of all the bylaws in place, so violations occur easily and frequently, such as putting out an unapproved sign or riding a bicycle the wrong way down a one way street. Enforcement agencies do not have the time and personnel to enforce every instance of wrongdoing. Recommitting some violations can be as simple as putting an unapproved sign back out when no one is looking.

In sum, Nantucket’s expanding attention has brought not only financial success, but changes to Nantucket’s culture in recent years. As the island faces threats from overtourism and increasing commercialization, the Town must learn to balance what is good for its economy and what is good for its culture. Long-term middle- and low-income residents are being displaced in many parts of the island as housing units are converted into short term rentals and rising housing prices make it difficult to afford a home on Nantucket. New residents and tourists who show little attachment and respect for the community and culture fill the place of the displaced long-time Nantucketers. Furthermore, the island is developing a reputation as a place to party and instead of being a charming vacation getaway as it is normally known. Reinforcing customs and culture will require bolstering the support of enforcement agencies who protect Nantucket’s vital resources. At the same time, Nantucket must reevaluate the culture the community wants to promote, as in the case of outdoor dining, to ensure that regulations in place adequately reflect the desires of community members. We recommend the Town make appropriate plans now to try to address the multifarious ways in which Nantucket’s customs and cultures are under siege currently and will continue to be in the future. We recommend that the Town

1. Encourage and emphasize the family-friendly nature of the island via messaging and advertising campaigns;

2. Develop a community integration program for new and prospective homeowners to facilitate transitioning the Nantucket community;

3. Continue expanding affordable housing programs while considering limiting the impact of off-island investors and businesses in short-term renting;

4. Consider limiting the number of new events and alcohol permits, while deemphasizing the need for alcohol at culturally significant events and enforce alcohol regulations more strongly at them;

5. Continue communicating and cooperating with the Chamber of Commerce as demonstrated during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure flexibility and opportunities exist for local businesses and artists;

6. Promote beach etiquette, such as cleaning up litter, avoiding dunes, and leashing dogs with summer education materials;

7. Pursue further research on methods to alleviate parking concerns Downtown. Identify solutions that do not generate barriers for visiting Downtown;

8. Adjust bylaws to allow outdoor dining in public spaces during summer months on a more regular basis; Identify means for the utilization of public space in an equitable manner for businesses without attractive locations for outdoor dining; Develop appropriate regulations to control public drinking, litter, capacity, etc. while ensuring uniformity in outdoor dining design;

9. Clearly and definitively, phase-out outdoor signage and merchandise displays for businesses when no longer deemed necessary by the Economic Recovery Task Force after the COVID pandemic has ended;

10. Consider adopting a temporary program for outdoor retail markets in select locations at specific times to enable additional commerce for the retail industry; Collect public feedback to determine whether or not the program should continue until the COVID pandemic ends;

11. Develop permitting process for art installations in designated public locations on a rotating basis; Create a review board to approve appropriate art and issue permits through in an equitable manner;

12. Continue gathering public opinion on what the culture the community wants to foster after the pandemic ends, relevant to reestablishing events and normal business operations, renewing Nantucket traditions, and strengthening community ties;

13. Provide more resources to enforcement agencies and strengthen deterrence capabilities;

14. Routinely distribute educational materials to various groups to improve bylaw awareness and adherence, and;

15. Use the timeline provided in Appendix L to distribute our educational materials in an effort to achieve our project goals.

We have also updated previous educational materials, and created new ones, to facilitate an education campaign for business owners and residents. We suggested revisions and amendments to the “Welcome to Nantucket: An Island Guide” for new Nantucketers, we created two updated Quick Reference Guides for Businesses, one for use during COVID and one for the “back-to-normal” transition period, and we created samples of Public Services Announcements the Department of Culture and Tourism can use as part of a radio campaign.