Approaching gridlock

Cadillac Mountain is turning into the Velveteen Rabbit, so beloved that all its fur is being loved off. Twice last week, Acadia National Park officials had to close the top of the mountain to additional visitors – it was total gridlock up there.

There is barely a nook or cranny of the state left undiscovered by summer visitors. The coast may be the biggest draw, but lakes, mountains, inland waterways and forests all receive their share of tourist attention and then some.

Of all the attractions in Maine, Acadia National Park is at the top of the list. Shock waves from park visitation hit much of Hancock County, but nowhere more than the town of Bar Harbor, which turns into the state’s 12th-largest city on a given summer’s day.

With tourism playing the leading role in Maine’s economy, how do we nurture that golden egg while keeping the goose alive? How do we make the world welcome without overwhelming the infrastructure and capacity of our rural communities?

The first question is, “How much is too much?” The answer to that is in the eye of the beholder. For a resident of a Bar Harbor neighborhood, “too much” started long ago. For a local business, bring it on. There’s never enough.

Off-island towns see an increase in visitation too, as Mount Desert Island fills up, and prices for food and lodging on the island rise.

Traffic may be the impact with the farthest reach. Even the local work-arounds are being discovered, and trying to get through from MDI to Bangor? Fuggedaboutit.

Ellsworth is showing signs of making the best of it. They have managed to preserve a village center that feels like a place where a real community lives, works and shops. Then there is High Street, which makes up in utility what it lacks in beauty, saving the rest of the county from a trip to Bangor for life’s essentials.

There always has been an uptick in summer activity even in those communities more distant from the county center, often in the form of summer families who have been coming to Blue Hill or Deer Isle or Sorrento for generations. Now it is decision time for those towns too.

Should they begin to develop more robust tourist services? More inns, motels and restaurants? Gift shops? Efforts at “farm to table” dining, purveyors of the many fine crafts made in Hancock County and the occasional supper at the church or fire hall mostly suit the nature of a small town. But successful efforts to draw travelers to town to support those low-key activities inevitably snowball.

Tourists who sleep in your town will need to be fed. And protected (from themselves or each other). And entertained. A quiet beach or a woodland trail are fine as far as they go, but how about pizza and miniature golf? People from away do not go to bed when it gets dark under the table, and they will be looking for something to do.

Making a living Down East is a challenge, and the allure of tourist dollars can create great pressure on a community to take advantage. For a town like Bucksport, tourism may be an opportunity to reinvent itself. Though the mill is gone, Bucksport still has the bones of a year-round community, and its lovely riverfront development could be a summer attraction as well.

At the other end of Hancock County, the Schoodic Peninsula will soon be home to a new campground near its own piece of Acadia, sure to attract some campers from MDI where national park and private campgrounds are full at peak season. Fringe benefit: it’s quieter over there. So far.

The streets of Bar Harbor seem more crowded than ever this year. For the valiant toilers in the tourist trade, may they be richly rewarded. For the rest of us, the summer has had its challenges. The streets and sidewalks are more crowded than ever. No room to walk, no place to park.

Cell phones have not been helpful. Talkers, texters and Googlers drive through crosswalks, stand mid-street gesticulating or halt dead-center on a crowded sidewalk, plugging up the works and irritating the natives.

If it all gets to be too much, how about this? A place of your own with heated sidewalks and a clubhouse with “hot tubs, tanning beds, a golf simulator, media room with free Wi-Fi” and a state-of-the-art gym. Shangri La? No. It’s The Avenue Orono, the newest student residences at our state university.

Apparently, this is what it takes to lure students to a college campus these days. That’s college students, as in 18- to 21-year-olds. You clammers, nurses, teachers and woodsmen, if you do not enjoy a similar standard of living at home, sign up for classes and get away from it all. Tourists and college students alike are wielding the same big stick: Make us happy or we won’t come.

At what price? The host communities for Maine’s tourism industry must take care to preserve a livable environment for their own residents, lest the quality of life for locals and visitors alike suffer.

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Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait

Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.

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