, Newburyport, MA

Local News

December 17, 2007

Catering to the 'superwealthy'; Karp's downtown finds niche with America's elite

NANTUCKET - Inside Barry Thurston's bait and tackle shop in the downtown district here are the things one would expect to find in a shop three decades old: the fishing lures and knives, the rods and reels, the hats and sunglasses; products in a slight state of disarray that comes when product placement trends don't mean much to an owner.

But outside Thurston's store, the bait and tackle shop is surrounded by boutiques and art galleries, jewelry stores and even a massive Ralph Lauren store a couple of blocks away - stores with products placed just so, meant for well-bankrolled shoppers.

Thurston's shop is closing after 33 years, but the 65-year-old man, dressed on a recent afternoon in a maroon sweat shirt and khakis covered in the black stains of manual labor, says it isn't because of high rents or declining business. He wants to move on to something else, something he's yet to figure out.

More and more often, Nantucketers say the culture of the island is changing and continually turning more upscale, pushing out the middle-class working people like Thurston.

Thurston said he's noticed the change, particularly in the past decade or so.

"This place has gradually become a tourists' spot for the wealthy," he said. "It really started to change in the last 10 to 15 years here, when you see the big money really get here, the serious money, the billionaires."

Behind the scenes of this cultural change - either reacting to it or pushing it along, which one isn't exactly clear - is Stephen Karp, the president and chief executive officer of New England Development and the largest taxpayer on the island, a distinction he also holds in Newburyport.

Karp, a billionaire, owns about 75 percent to 80 percent of the retail buildings in the island's downtown district and about 90 percent of the lodging properties on the island, Nantucket Assessor Deborah Dilworth said.

And though Karp did not return phone calls over two weeks seeking comment on this story, interviews with residents, retail store owners, town officials and other Nantucketers reveal a management plan that is focused on making Nantucket the island it is today: a vacation destination for the world's jet set.

Going upscale

Inside David Place's Manor House Antiques, a small shop in the basement of a building on Centre Street in the business district, items are scattered about without order, creating a single, narrow pathway that allows customers to circle the store.

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