The Cape Cod of today is many things at once: a popular vacationland, a mecca for wealthy second-home owners, a historic fishing village, a hip urban scene, a sleepy retirement community, a suburban subdivision, and even a bedroom community for Boston. Towns wrestle with how to maintain vibrant year-round communities as wealthy second-home owners buy up properties and drive up the cost of living for the average Joe. Towns also struggle to preserve each community's authentic character. As for Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket: The rich are richer, and the struggle is greater. The character of Martha's Vineyard and of Nantucket are even more at risk from the dreaded sameness of corporate America, because they are both still so unique.
People on the Cape and islands are talking about the identical issues they are talking about throughout New England, around the country, and even around the world: global warming, green energy, water and air quality, drugs and crime, healthcare, immigrants, education, and affordable housing. In classic New England style, the year-round residents of the Cape's villages and towns -- there are about 220,000 of us -- turn out for town meetings once or twice a year to decide the major issues and spending of the town. Discussions range from school funding to the Patriot Act and everything in between. What's a town meeting like? Show up and see for yourself. Everyone is welcome.
A big issue for all 15 Cape Cod towns in these tough economic times is the lack of funding for general municipal needs, such as schools and sewage. Although school populations are shrinking as working families are allegedly leaving the Cape in droves, expenses, such as the cost of energy, continue to rise. That means big cuts: Teachers are being laid off, programs are being eliminated, and, in some districts, parents are paying for such things as music programs, sports programs, and even school bus transportation.
Water quality is another hot topic at town hall meetings, as the region has an antiquated sewage system that does not prevent wastewater from leaking into the ground and contaminating the bays and estuaries. Several towns are working on sewer plans -- systems that probably should have been installed decades ago -- while others are embarking on major plans to clean up coastal ponds. In a place where sailing is a lifestyle and the beaches are vital to the economy, there is far too much murky water.
Cape Cod and the islands are tourist destinations, and naturally, their economy rests heavily on the tourism industry. Therefore, the shortage of workers for the Cape's many seasonal minimum-wage jobs presents a problem. Positions for restaurant dishwashers, hotel chamber maids, and landscapers are going unfilled each season as it gets harder and harder to find people to take these jobs. Many large employers used to bring workers in from overseas, from such places as Jamaica, Brazil, and Eastern Europe, under the H2B visa program, which is a program that allowed foreign workers sponsored by an employer to work in the U.S. for 6-month periods. Cape Cod businesses would employ these workers during the summer's prime tourist season. However, federal legislation to extend the program has been mired in the larger national debate about immigration in general; for the past two summers, the foreign workers did not come to Cape Cod. Though the Cape and islands are home to a large population of Brazilian immigrants, the region's employers are already contemplating how to handle the shortage in staff for upcoming summers.
One drive past the large, elaborate seaside homes anywhere along the Cape may give some visitors the impression that the region is wealthy, but that is far from true. While the area does have gorgeous second homes that belong to the überwealthy, there are many middle-class neighborhoods and pockets of poverty, and even enclaves of homeless people who sleep in the woods and line up for free meals at the Salvation Army in Hyannis. The Cape's human-service agencies struggle to provide services to all the families that need them, and housing agencies work to create more affordable units, especially rentals, to house the working poor, the elderly, and those with disabilities. Some of the housing projects run into problems with neighbors who don't want the units, but many Cape Cod residents acknowledge that more housing must be built. The main question is how and where to do it. The concept of redevelopment (converting unused shops and industrial buildings into affordable housing) is gaining momentum and is also favored by planners at the Cape Cod Commission, the county land-use agency.
On the islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, the biggest question is: How can locals afford to stay in a place where billionaires, such as Bill Gates of Microsoft, have mansions they visit for 1 week a year? Keeping the character of the islands -- and that means the fishermen, carpenters, and shopkeepers, and not just the cobblestone streets and white picket fences -- is critical to islanders of all incomes. The fact that Nantucket still has a character to protect is a tribute to past planners who designated the entire island as a historic district, a legacy that has served it well. Nantucket is the kind of place where the prospect of installing the island's first traffic light can cause an uproar. Residents are right to fight to maintain the island's character, because it is the subtle, incremental growth (a strip mall here, a historic house demolition there) that has altered so much of the character of the Cape's 15 towns. Like Nantucket, Martha's Vineyard also must fight to preserve its history and character -- only here, the problem is mansionization, where bigger and bigger houses are built, replacing cottages and blocking views of the water.
Although the region is fighting to maintain its character, it is also looking to the future. The nation's first off-shore wind project -- 130 wind turbines in Nantucket Sound -- spent 10 years in permitting through local, regional, state, and federal agencies. The federal government gave its official approval in 2010. There are still several lawsuits blocking its path. Although some people object to the industrialization of Nantucket Sound, many residents are in favor of the project, relishing the chance for the Cape to lead the nation in the construction of sources of alternative energy. Energy conservation is becoming not just smart on the wallet and good for the environment, but absolutely vital to our future. Throughout the Cape and islands, energy-efficient cars, solar panels on buildings, and expanded recycling programs abound. Today the Cape and islands are a sea of "green," surrounded by oceans of blue.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.