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Folks on Martha’s Vineyard expect Obamas

Police Chief Erik Blake of Oak Bluffs and administrator Michael Dutton see benefits in a presidential visit. Police Chief Erik Blake of Oak Bluffs and administrator Michael Dutton see benefits in a presidential visit. (Vincent DeWitt for The Globe)
By David Abel
Globe Staff / July 7, 2009
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OAK BLUFFS - There have been no sightings of suited agents in sunglasses talking into their wrists, but residents say the Secret Service has reserved rooms at several hotels, and certain high-placed emissaries have contacted local caterers and asked to review restaurant menus. And there are reports of a housing search in a secure location that would be comfortable for a family of four and their sizable retinue.

The White House has yet to confirm anything, but the word on Martha’s Vineyard is that President Obama will follow in the footsteps of the previous Democratic president and choose the island for his first summer getaway late next month.

“I can’t reveal my sources, but I’m 99.9 percent sure he’s coming,’’ said Marie B. Allen, a spokeswoman for the Martha’s Vineyard chapter of the NAACP. “Everyone is very excited.’’

There has been talk, she said, that the Obamas might stay in or near Oak Bluffs, the historical center of the island’s black community, which dates back to when the Underground Railroad helped slaves escape the South.

“We’re absolutely thrilled and honored beyond measure that he’s coming to the Vineyard,’’ Allen said. “It’s an honor for the history of the African-American population here.’’

The prospect of another presidential visit - the Clintons spent most of their summer vacations here - has elicited anticipation and apprehension among officials contending with a summer population that has grown from about 15,000 year-round to about 115,000.

“It’s nice to have presidents come here, but it puts a lot of pressure on us,’’ said Erik Blake, police chief of Oak Bluffs, which has 20 officers, eight of whom were brought in for the summer. “We are already under excruciating budget constraints. If we have to provide officers on an overtime basis, it’s not something we can cover.’’

He said the federal government never reimbursed the town for its expenses when President Clinton visited.

The work can be trying for law enforcement officials, who have to be available 24 hours a day to help block roads and escort the president and his family if they want to do anything from body surfing off South Beach to getting ice cream on Circuit Avenue.

With just 14 officers, Chief Beth Toomey of the West Tisbury Police Department will have to oversee the comings and goings of Air Force One while thousands land at the island’s airport.

“It’s a lot of work,’’ she said. “Anytime a dignitary visits the airport, there are logistical details to deal with. We’re a small police department, and if anything happens at the airport, it means everyone working. We still have to have the airport operate.’’

But on an island used to visits by VIPs, the downsides of slowed traffic, closed roads, and other headaches of a presidential vacation are kept in perspective.

No dates have been set officially, but Nancy Gardella, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce, and others said the Obamas are likely to visit during the last 10 days of August.

“Sure, there are inconveniences, but Vineyarders are used to it,’’ Gardella said. “It’s great, spectacular, and super-flattering that the first family would consider vacationing here. It’s nice for the island to be in the international spotlight.’’

She said she thinks the Obamas have chosen the Vineyard because they have visited many times, most recently for a fund-raiser during the presidential campaign. It also might be easier than other locations for the Secret Service, with its experience working with local officials.

She said the Secret Service has reserved rooms at the Wesley Hotel in Oak Bluffs and inquired at the Clarion Carriage House Inn in Edgartown, among others. The owners of the Wesley and Clarion did not want to publicize the Secret Service’s plans.

“I’m reluctant to say anything for security reasons,’’ said Peter Martel, owner of the Wesley.

The Vineyard Gazette reported on Monday that emissaries of Obama have considered more than 20 properties the family might rent, including at Cow Bay, East Chop, and Edgartown Great Pond. They are one of a growing number of media organizations trying to divine the plan for the Obamas’ summer vacation, a presidential tradition that usually draws a horde of reporters and cameras.

The burbling rumors have created a bit of a conundrum for local papers such as The Martha’s Vineyard Times, which have traditionally given space to the many VIPs who come but would have to compete with national news organizations.

“The guy’s going to be on vacation; you don’t have to cover every burp,’’ said the Times managing editor, Nelson Sigelman. “It’s a big story, because it’s the president. But I’m less concerned about celebrity name dropping as what it means to the people here. It’s always called a celebrity-studded island or an enclave of the rich and famous, but people forget that there are a lot of working people here who care as much about their healthcare or the economy as anyone.’’

“His visit is a testament to the diversity of our town and how it welcomes anyone - black, white, the rich and the poor,’’ said Michael Dutton, town administrator of Oak Bluffs. “There’s a lot of things he can do here. We just hope people stay out of his way and allow him to relax.’’

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.