ELLSWORTH — Retail sales boomed for the second year in a row on Mount Desert Island and merchants are attributing this in part to changes in travel patterns.
Bar Harbor restaurateur Michael Boland owns Havana Restaurant, Choco-Latte Café, Acadia Coffee Co. and co-owns the Islesford Dock Restaurant & Gallery on Little Cranberry Island.
“Fear of European travel due to terrorism, a general upward trend in visits to national parks,” Boland commented, adding “our local chamber and larger lodging members [are] doing a great job marketing our destination and of course more and more people simply realize what an amazing place Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park are.”
Jennifer Geiger, spokeswoman for the Maine Office of Tourism, reports lodging taxable sales through August of 2017 were up 8 percent over 2016. Restaurant taxable sales saw growth of 3.5 percent over 2016. She said combined restaurant and lodging taxable sales grew about 4.76 percent “year over year, January through August.”
Boland said 2016 was the best year “by a long shot” in Havana’s history. Of course, that year marked Acadia National Park’s 100th anniversary. The year-long centennial celebration drew millions of visitors.
And yet, Boland is expecting last year’s revenue figures to be either on par or slightly above 2016 numbers.
“The fact that we matched 2016 confirmed for me that the level of business in 2016 wasn’t due so much to the Centennial,” he noted, “which of course was a fantastic celebration, but to larger travel patterns.”
At Bar Harbor’s Window Panes, which features fun and functional items for the home and garden, 2017 was another banner year.
“It was a season that just felt like it would never end,” said Julie Veilleux, who co-owns the shop with her husband, Greg. “It was a great season. It was pretty much on par with 2016.”
“There were a lot of people coming up to just experience the island,” she said. “We’re still [Dec. 14] seeing out-of-town visitors.”
Veilleux surmised that people also were coming to Maine later in the season because parts of the country experienced warmer than usual temperatures.
Of course, retailers struggled with Maine’s labor shortage.
The worker shortage is the most significant issue, Boland said. Declining birth rates are a part of that as well as the difficulties in getting work permits for foreign workers.
The restaurateur recalled a statistic that Sen. Angus King cited. Maine in 2000 had 17,000 students in each grade. Today that number has dropped to 13,000 students in each grade and falling.
Veilleux attributes some of the labor struggle to a lack of housing and parking in Bar Harbor.
Foreign workers who work primarily at the hotels and motels had picked up extra work in the evenings at Window Panes in previous years. But this past summer, there just weren’t enough workers.
“We’ve really struggled with that this year,” Veilleux said. “We shortened our hours by an hour. Instead of closing at 10 p.m. we closed at 9 p.m.”
College students were once a reliable supply of help but not so much anymore.
“We think these college kids aren’t coming down as much because of housing,” said Veilleux.
The town of Bar Harbor is considering dormitory housing for seasonal workers.
“I’m in favor of that,” she said. “But, there’s not a lot of available space.”
Boland said, “It’s all a row of dominoes — if there’s not enough affordable housing for year-round folks, that means there’s less housing available for seasonal employees. It makes it real hard for the smaller business to staff their place, particularly restaurants, which are so labor heavy.”
Acadia Corp. operates seven retail shops and an ice cream shop in Bar Harbor. A Southwest Harbor shop is planned. The private company created 16 employee housing units upstairs at its new Acadia Park Company store on Main Street in Bar Harbor.
“If you have good housing available for folks, that’s definitely an attractive piece of the work puzzle,” said Acadia Corp. CEO David Woodside.
Woodside reported the corporation’s 2017 retail sales surpassed 2016.
“Even with that strong 2016 year, our total sales were up due to the new store,” Woodside said.
The Rock and Art Shop, with locations in Bangor, Ellsworth and Bar Harbor, also had a good season.
“We did a little bit better than last year,” said Annette Dodd, who co-owns the business with her family. “No complaints at all.”
Dodd attributes the good year in part to its expanded retail presence. Bangor’s Rock and Art Shop has been in business for seven years while the Ellsworth shop opened three years ago.
“It really takes that long to get known in a small town or a small city,” she said. “That’s a big portion of it.”
“We’re starting to notice that a lot more customers are starting to realize we sell more than rocks,” Dodd said. “For us it’s been a lot of word of mouth. We found that people really got the picture and stopped to buy things.”
Statewide, the news is the same.
But, what will need to happen to maintain that level of visitor spending or increase it?
Both Veilleux and Boland have concerns about Bar Harbor’s infrastructure.
“This town when it gets going gets busy,” Veilleux said. “Our infrastructure just can’t handle the level of visitors coming.”
Veilleux said she doesn’t like to hear about Mainers and Hancock County residents not wanting to visit Bar Harbor because of overcrowding.
“We need to find a balance,” she said. “Find a way to let everyone come here. We try to find creative ways to educate our shoppers. We’re open 12 hours a day. There are little pockets of time to find parking.”
Boland said planning is key.
“We need to be much more competitive — we need to compete not just with Camden, Rockland and other Maine destinations but indeed all over New England,” he said. “Many of those towns have smartly put much more money into their downtowns.
“Our crosswalks, sidewalks and general infrastructure are embarrassing. Our public works does a great job with limited resources, but we as a town need to pony up and increase our spending on these important attributes.”