Letter to Editor: Community or commodity?

To the Editor:

We read with interest Steve Coston’s rather voluminous guest column in last week’s Islander. His impassioned defense of the tourism industry is accurate and well-reasoned in as far as it goes.

And, Coston is to be praised for his involvement in the creation of the Inn on Mount Desert which is a positive addition to the town’s hospitality offerings and unquestionably an improvement to that corner in particular.

Few would quibble with the notion that tourism is among the top economic driving forces on Mount Desert Island ranking right up there with the research laboratories, the college, the park and the boatbuilding industry, once fairly adjusted for the amount of money that actually stays in and returns to the community after it flows through out-of-state corporations and financial institutions.

However, Coston falls entirely flat with his implication that somehow big hotel corporations should be granted some extra degree of deference or appreciation because they rank among the town’s largest taxpayers. We doubt there’s a single community in Maine that would agree that those writing the biggest checks should have more of a say.

The one key point he seems to have missed in responding to Jill Goldthwait’s piece is that this community is beginning to fear an imbalance in the prioritization of seasonal commerce at the expense of the greater social contract with what makes us a livable year-round community.

We seem to have devoted much time, energy and financial resources to addressing the needs of Bar Harbor the commodity, and much less to the preservation of Bar Harbor the community. That’s not to say there is any grand conspiracy or ill-motivated efforts to do so — just that the net imbalance is palpable, most likely arising through a lack of comprehension of the issue, rather than due to any nefarious grand design.

The ultimate sustainability of a community isn’t just about economic activity. The local economy is only a modest part of a whole that includes a network of schools, churches, libraries, a hospital and other organizations and institutions.

Look at the disruptions foisted on downtown neighborhoods with the implementation of paid parking. Because of a fear that paid parking would incentivize tourists to park in the neighborhoods, a complicated and burdensome permit system was created. The town’s lowest-paid front line workers are forced to buy permits, and residents can’t even invite a friend over for a cup of coffee during the day without worrying if they will get a ticket for parking in front of their house.

So, residents park all their cars on the street, sometimes for days on end, to leave their driveways open for unexpected company. The net result is fewer available spaces for the public which is the antithesis of what the entire parking scheme was designed to do.

While we remain proud that people from around the globe can get their first taste of Bar Harbor while arriving by cruise ship, there has been no recent community conversation about what is an appropriate level of visitation. The daily passenger cap is no real throttle as there’s no limit on the number of days ships can visit. Back when we welcomed 40 ships a year they were greeted with open arms. Now, at 180 visits annually the onslaught is beginning to chafe.

Much like the proverbial frog ignorant of the rising temperature in a pot of water set on a stove to boil, we have gradually acceded to having most of Agamont Park, the Town Pier, lower Main Street, and now a good portion of West Street be surrendered for days at a time to metal ramparts of buses, and extraordinary crowds of people. A quote often attributed to Yogi Berra says, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” Exactly.

When more and more people, our friends, our family members, our coworkers, who are all vital parts of the community, find themselves saying, often out loud, they are not sure they want to live here anymore, that’s a pretty powerful indicator there’s a problem.

Residents, town officials, and, yes, members of the business community, need to reflect, and to begin looking at issues and opportunities from a very different perspective.

Earl Brechlin

Roxie Brechlin

Bar Harbor