2018-03-01 / Opinion

Guest Editorial

Economics Affect Where We Live

When my children grew up in Middletown, it had a larger population that appreciated the benefits of differences. The military had a heavier presence then, and families from many different places brought a cosmopolitan element to the community from which we all benefited, not just financially but also culturally. As a high school teacher, I knew students who had never left Aquidneck Island, but they had the good fortune to share friendships and common goals, such as athletic competitions, with others from across the country and even from other parts of the world.

With the decline in military presence came a decline in the birth rate and, over the years, the community changed, both culturally and financially. The local population was gradually aging, school enrollment was dropping, and Middletown had to regroup to ensure that it remained vibrant and financially stable. It did so by expanding opportunities – the Corporate Park, for example – and by promoting tourism. The business and manufacturing worlds have had their ups and downs, but the tourist economy has continued to grow to the extent that the town now recognizes its importance.

Unfortunately, in some quarters, there is still an "us and them" mentality. While the locals do not enjoy the crowds, the increased traffic, and the competition for services, most grudgingly endure the minor discomforts of the high seasons and appreciate such benefits that accrue from hospitality taxes and increased patronage at retail establishments.

Nevertheless, there is a vocal minority that seems reminiscent of the tribalism that has asserted itself in some other areas of the country. I am concerned that we are becoming a town that has misplaced our heritage of fair and equal treatment in favor of fair treatment for us and unfair treatment for them.

The controversy related to the Sachuest Beach campground is an example of this dual mentality. Following a break-in and loss of beach receipts, a committee was formed to review all aspects related to the beach, conduct interviews with both employees and patrons, and bring recommendations to the Town Council.

Other issues aside, parking had been a hot button issue for many years with residents complaining about a lack of preferential parking. The committee responded to their concerns with reconfigurations, including resident parking areas, generally considered a positive move.

The problem came with the recommendation that the campground be converted to a parking area, displacing summer residents, many of whom considered the campground their second homes. There was a public outcry – a deluge of letters followed by campers coming long distances to express their dismay.

Responding not only to their concerns but also to the point that increased parking would mean undesirably larger crowds, the Town Council chose not to close the campground but, instead, recommended fee increases of $2,000 this year and $2,000 next year.

The proposal restored the $97,500 that would have been sacrificed with the closing of the campground and provided a $4,000 per campsite increase ($2,000 per year) to appease those locals who had advocated for more resident parking and improved beach amenities while the fee increase blindsided the campers.

It’s important to recognize that campers generally cannot afford long stays in hotel rooms. I remember camping when my children were young, and it was all we could afford, not to mention the elderly that the Town Council claims to care about when it talks about local residents. Who will speak for the elderly campers, some of whom have summered here for decades?

The point? Middletown has basically a tourist economy. Would we like more businesses or corporations to invest in our town? Yes. But we need to recognize that tourists are our bread and butter, and long-term campers are just as important as short-term wealthier visitors in hotel rooms if not more so because of what they contribute seasonally to our economy.

As several writers suggested, modest increases over time would be acceptable, but such a huge increase with little warning reeks of locals vs campers – us vs them.

A town is not purely a business, concerning itself merely with profit and loss. It is a community where economics affect the people who live there as well as those who engage with them. If locals are to accept the financial benefits of the tourist economy, integrity demands a balance where we consider how our actions affect those who are at our mercy.

Sometimes a relatively small issue can make us think about who we are and whom we want to be.

Barbara A. VonVillas, Ph.D.
Middletown Town Councilor

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