Mid-August, Hancock County is hip-deep in tourists. Bar Harbor is the center of the tourist universe, the town that every other town says they do not want to be, yet many towns are considering efforts that mimic, in type if not in volume, Bar Harbor’s tourist-based economy.
On the Maine coast, tourism is the low-hanging fruit. The old Beach Boys song, “If everybody had an ocean…,” applies. The ocean is a magnet, endlessly fascinating to coastal dwellers and heartlanders alike. There are plenty of travelers who are happy with a lake, the woods or the mountains, but not in anything like the numbers of people who want ocean.
Thus begins the cycle of visitation. If people are coming to your town, there is money to be made in providing food and lodging. Housed and fed and having “done” Acadia National Park in the morning (Yes! They say that!) travelers will be looking for things to do. A whale watch, a Segway tour, bike rentals, mini or maxi golf, kayaks, movies, concerts and that thing we all scream for — it all flourishes.
Be careful what you wish for, right? Ever since the seasonal “summer complaints” gave way to daily, weekly or couple-of-nightly visitors, business has grown year after year. For any town considering or experiencing tourism growth, there are questions that should be asked before taking the plunge.
Summer activity accelerates from manageable to overwhelming while no one is looking, and once established, seasonal activities are hard to displace or moderate. Exciting new commercial enterprises (looking at you, cruise ships), welcome at first, soon yield a bounty of visitors that overwhelm the local population.
Sidewalks are clogged, benches are full, trash cans overflow, parking is scarce and public safety departments that cope with a few thousand people in the winter are facing the demands of double or triple that population every summer day.
There is a head-on collision in the housing market where more and more rooms must be dedicated to a constantly growing seasonal workforce, rooms that sit empty all winter. That and the opportunity to realize eye-popping revenue from short-term rentals means anyone who would like to live in a tourist community year-round has precious few affordable options.
Then the discussion begins about whether enough is enough, or too much. The least organized and least vocal of those affected are the local residents. The most vocal are those with a financial interest in the ever-increasing crowds. Many of those pressing for more opportunity close up shop and vanish in the winter, leaving behind a streetscape of shuttered shops and restaurants.
Have any towns been successful in promoting tourism growth without growing themselves out of livability? Eastport comes to mind, protected to some degree by the time it takes to get there. It has all the right ingredients, a vibrant but small downtown with appealing places to eat and drink, a smattering of lodging but no big hotels, a manageable need for parking and employee housing.
Rockland is another community with the potential to be overserved. The city has a healthy center, plenty of maritime activity and a robust commitment to the arts underpinned by the Farnsworth Museum and Wyeth Center.
Rockland seems to be doing a creditable job of getting ahead of its growth curve. Vigorous community discussion began before short-term rentals overwhelmed the housing market. Now the city is wrestling with cruise ship visitation while it only has nine scheduled for the season, unlike the 177 scheduled to visit Bar Harbor this year.
It is ever so much easier to control an economic activity before substantial investment has been made. Once prospective businesses have sunk their cash into getting established, they are not about to be uprooted without a fight.
Small towns around Hancock County have long been valued for their quiet delights and are being discovered for the same. Now is the time to think long and hard about what sorts of development will bring a greater measure of year-round economic security without losing the character of these communities.
There are opportunities for economic development that are not tourism-based. The Downeast Institute in Beals, the Shaw Institute in Blue Hill, aquaculture research, the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory and The Jackson Laboratory on MDI and Ellsworth and the Schoodic Institute in Winter Harbor all provide year-round jobs and a living wage.
The lure of tourist dollars is compelling but it is worth taking time to think about how to retain community character. A working waterfront and the preservation of the commercial fishing industry are vital. Ours is not a Disneyland waterfront. It is the real deal, keeping the coast alive through good times and bad. Tourism is the easy fix, but towns that thrive will be those that resist a summer-only economy.