Raise your hand if you want to have a town. Not just an address, but a town where you feel like you belong. A town with good schools, good restaurants, good neighbors, maybe a library. A town where people will leave you alone until you need something, then they’ll be there for you.
It used to be that most Maine towns were like that, at least in this part of the state. Family and community networks were tight. Even enemies were part of the network. There was the opportunity to relish their foibles and misfortunes, but even for them, no one was going to be left hungry or homeless.
Hancock County towns have changed over time. Now they are changing fast. First it was summer people who came, and then stayed, marrying into a local family or finding work and a way of life that appealed. Some integrated well and some kept apart, familiar figures that merited a wave from the pickup or a hello on the sidewalk, part of the landscape.
When a town stops to take a look at itself, is it too late? Changes in the life of rural towns are driven both from the inside and the outside. When the trip from Boston was a major journey, summer visitors came to stay, building summer houses and hiring locals to cook, clean and garden, drive their cars and boats, secure the whole enterprise in the fall and open it up again in the spring.
There was a balance of power. “Rusticators” were wise enough to know they were dependent on the locals and often developed, if not friendships, at least a relationship of mutual respect with the people they depended upon to make their summers pleasurable. They may not have participated in town life directly, but they were a fixture.
Better roads and faster cars (and the founding of a national park) led to a wider swath of the outside world coming to take a look at the coast of Maine. These people were not about to build houses and stay a while. They wanted a comfortable room and good meals during their week or weekend Downeast, and it came to pass.
Bar Harbor, the home of Acadia National Park, experienced the most rapid and substantial growth. Now full to bursting, some of that growth is spilling over not just to other Mount Desert Island towns, but to towns throughout the county.
Despite the mantra of “We don’t want to be Bar Harbor,” many residents of other communities wouldn’t mind a taste of the summer phenomenon that is the heart of Vacationland. They have been careful about trying to preserve the goodness of their hometowns, often by trying to focus on arts and music rather than shopping. But once that Pandora’s box is opened, shopping must surely follow.
It is difficult to open the door to tourism just a crack. Once it starts there is no going back. Even a modest number of tourists need places to eat and sleep, public restrooms, something to do and someone to look out for them when an ankle is turned, a head is bumped, a spill is taken or worse. You need police officers and firefighters, places to park and someone to answer questions (“How do you keep all the boats facing in the same direction?”). Then winter comes and you don’t need any of that anymore, but then it’s spring and you have to find people to do it all again…
While communities struggle to figure out what they want and how much of it, another phenomenon is underway, a result of the year we have just lived through, threatened by a highly contagious disease none of us had ever heard of before February of 2020.
Most of Downeast Maine is naturally socially distanced. There are not that many of us and there is winter when we keep to ourselves and stay in out of the cold. People who live in more densely populated places decided it would be a good back–up plan to have a place in Maine, to come to now or if things got worse.
A selectman in one coastal town said, “They’ve bought up every house that anybody would sell and now they’ve started on the land.” The cost of houses exploded, far beyond the reach of local residents, and a great exodus ensued. More towns are becoming seasonal as a result, with few lights on in neighborhoods in winter and fewer businesses able to stay open.
This time it’s not just about our preferences. This time it is existential. Once again we are trying to figure out what we want our towns to be, and hoping it is not too late to get there.
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.