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Commuters to the Vineyard Meeting High Demand in Construction

Two sandwiches, a couple bags of chips, cut up vegetables and dog treats were stored snugly in Frank Frisch’s blue cooler on a recent early morning. He had packed his lunch before the sun rose at his home in Pawtucket, R.I. His childhood friend and coworker John Tremblay picked him up at 5 a.m., and while Mr. Frisch napped in the car, Mr. Tremblay drove to Woods Hole, where they parked and boarded the 7 a.m. ferry to Vineyard Haven on foot.


Early weekday ferries are filled with day laborers as building trades need every body they can get to fill the high demand. — Jeanna Shepard

This is their morning ritual five days a week, as they commute to their Vineyard jobs. Both are drywallers. They are among the roughly 200 commuters who take the early morning ferry to the Vineyard each day, many of them construction workers who hail from all over southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. They provide much of the sweat and muscle for an apparent construction boom now under way on the Island. On this morning, Steamship Authority vessel worker Joseph Keefe greeted more than a few of them by name.

A short time later, at a job site in Vineyard Haven, drywall contractor Howard Sashin worked with Mr. Frisch and Mr. Tremblay, hanging large pieces of sheetrock on the walls and ceilings of a renovated house under construction.

“I had to turn down 12 projects in the last two weeks,” Mr. Sashin said. The 56-year-old Oak Bluffs resident has been in the construction business for 34 years. He said it wasn’t long ago that construction projects were few and far between on the Island as a national recession that began in 2008 lingered.

“There were weeks where on Tuesday I didn’t know if I’d have work on Thursday,” he said. In those years, he only had two employees working full time. Now he has six.

A few miles down the road in Edgartown, contractor Doug Best has four building projects going at once. He said in the past three years his firm, D Best Construction, has grown from five employees to 20 and began taking on larger-scale projects.

“When there is less work, everyone takes what they can get,” he said. “It swims down the food chain. Everybody goes downstream, so the guy who builds $10 million houses builds $5 million houses.”

Building inspectors around the Island confirm an uptick in construction activity.


Large home renovations are fueling a small boom in construction on the Island. — Jeanna Shepard

Edgartown building inspector Leonard Jason Jr. said he began noticing the increase in September. Mr. Jason issued 67 new single family residence permits in Edgartown last year, 18 more than 2014. So far this year he has issued 12 new single family residence permits. Things are so busy that Mr. Jason recently came in to work one Monday afternoon to find five new permit applications.

“That’s a big deal,” he said.

In fact, things happened so fast in Edgartown that over the winter officials began to fear that they’d soon deplete their $110,000 annual budget to pay plumbing, electrical and gas inspectors, who inspect work on construction projects. Inspectors are paid $60 per inspection. At a meeting in early May, the town selectmen voted to transfer an additional $20,000 into the account to pay inspectors through the end of the fiscal year.

“The numbers in March were fine,” said town administrator Pamela Dolby at the meeting. “Then everything went crazy.”

In West Tisbury, building inspector Joseph K. Tierney Jr. said he has been working overtime this year and is in the process of searching for a part-time local inspector to help with the workload.

“There is a pretty busy building climate out there. If you try to find a carpenter it’s difficult,” he said. So far this year Mr. Tierney has issued 21 permits for new homes, renovations, additions and alterations so far, but he has more than 40 building permit applications still sitting on his desk. He said he sees no sign of things slowing down soon and points to an improving national economy.

“When I was a contractor you could tell things were doing well when the stock market was doing good,” he said.

In Oak Bluffs, building inspector Mark Barbadoro also is in the process of hiring a local inspector to assist with the workload. An assistant building inspector position was eliminated in Oak Bluffs in 2011. But now, with increased construction activity and also changes in permitting laws, Mr. Barbadaro said he needs help. “It has doubled in the two years I have been here,” he said of construction permits in town.


Parade of workers sets off from the ferry each morning. — Jeanna Shepard

Tisbury building inspector Kenneth Barwick said he too is seeing a number of large-scale residential renovation projects in the Island’s main port town. “The majority is people purchasing property with buildings on them, removing the buildings and putting up a house that is suitable to the needs of the family,” Mr. Barwick said. So far in 2016, he has issued five permits for new single family residences and 43 permits for renovations and additions, on a par with recent years, he said.

One key change he has noticed is that construction work spans the entire year.

“Housing projects start literally every month of the year,” Mr. Barwick said. “They are pouring concrete in January and March — previously it was only October and November.”

Mr. Sashin’s Vineyard Haven job site is a major restoration and addition project that will nearly double the size of an old farmhouse. Construction began in September with contractors and subcontractors working through the winter and into the spring.

At lunchtime, Mr. Frisch took a break from sheetrocking work to eat his midday meal and send his daughter a text message. His 14-hour day was about half over; he wouldn’t make it back to Pawtucket until the sun was setting. He would have about 10 hours at home before he’d be on his way back to the Island for another day of work. For now, he said, it’s worth it.

Video by Sophia Tewa.

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