Viewpoint: Tourism businesses get a bad rap

By Stephen Coston

I write in response to the recent column by Jill Goldthwait (published in the Aug. 15 Islander) entitled “Resisting a summer-only economy.”

First I should note that, although I am a member of Bar Harbor’s Town Council, the opinions expressed in this letter should in no way be construed as being representative of the council’s opinions. I am the sole author of this letter and as such the opinions expressed in this letter are strictly my own personal opinions.

I certainly appreciate Ms. Goldthwait’s interest in improving Bar Harbor’s economic lot and I do not at all question the sincerity of her intent. That being said I have to disagree with many of the individual points made as well as the general conclusion drawn. In fact, I feel the commentary contains many hazardous lines of thinking and would have been more aptly titled “Resisting an economy.”

Ms. Goldthwait throughout her article seeks to establish the idea that on Mount Desert Island “tourism is the low-hanging fruit.”

“Tourism is the easy fix, but towns that thrive will be those that resist the summer-only economy,” she concludes.

Many individuals involved in the history and current workings of this community and the island within which it resides would be justified in taking substantial offense to these statements — to the suggestion that Bar Harbor’s development into the world-class destination that it is can be taken for granted and has arisen from a simple and inevitable “cycle of visitation.”

Yet the author argues precisely that — that establishing such a desirable and well-functioning community housing thousands of residents and serving millions of visitors each year just sort of happened as a byproduct of the natural environment with minimal human ingenuity: “If people are coming to your town, there is money to be made in providing food and lodging … a whale watch, bike rentals, mini or maxi golf, kayaks, movies, concerts and that thing we all scream for — it all flourishes.”

This seems to me a rather contemptuous summary of more than a century of painstaking work performed by countless businesspeople, philanthropists, elected officials, town employees and community organizers who toiled and continue to toil not only for financial gain, but also because they loved and continue to love this place (and, even more importantly, because they love helping give other people the gift of being able to love this place).

Indeed, the Rockefellers could attest that those bike paths did not build themselves, and any hotelier or restaurateur would be happy to elaborate on just the sort of pecuniary risks and backbreaking work that go into serving up those beds and lobsters that, from the perspectives of the consumer and Ms. Goldthwait, simply seem to magically appear (accompanied by an assured profit, no less!).

The consumer, of course, is supposed to be under such an illusion — in the hospitality industry it is the very mark of good business that it all appears effortless in the eyes of the consumer. On the other hand, one would expect serious economic commentary to come with a deeper understanding.

Certainly I agree with the author that MDI abounds with natural beauty and accompanying opportunity. I am not familiar with anyone who would argue otherwise, and my gratitude for being able to say I am from here is immense.

That being said, not everything flourishes here. Businesses, including those in the restaurant and lodging industries, close regularly. There are multiple distinct sections of our town where storefronts are vacant despite the fact that businesses have tried time and time again to establish roots in these very places, only to be met with all too substantial challenges.

It is simply not a given that a business — including a tourism-oriented business — opened in Bar Harbor will be a successful one, and we must respect the risks taken by those seeking to contribute to our economy by hanging out a new shingle, regardless of industry.

And the suggestion that the so-called summer economy in some way detracts from or fails to complement a desired hypothetical year-round economy falls flat upon thorough consideration. Bar Harbor’s economy is not seasonal because there are millions of visitors in the summer. Rather, Bar Harbor’s economy is seasonal because there are relatively few visitors in the winter, and our town is otherwise a relatively small one. And that is not the fault of the summer economy or the millions of summer visitors. In fact, the summer economy and all those visitors bleed through to the year round economy substantially in a way that all locals benefit from, albeit not always in the most obvious ways.

It is not hard to come up with a fairly extensive list of tourism-oriented businesses — a variety of them also favored by locals — currently operating year-round in the aforementioned industries of lodging and restaurants that have opened and/or substantially expanded in the recent past: Side Street Café, Acadia Hotel Downtown, Blaze, Siam Orchid, Jack Russell’s, The Atlantic Oceanside Hotel and one of mine and my family’s own businesses, The Inn on Mount Desert (the list goes on, and I apologize to everyone I’ve not mentioned).

It is not likely that any of these businesses would even exist, let alone thrive on a year-round basis, if not for tourism. But here they are, offering high degrees of product and service to tourists and locals alike right here in our rather remote community of just 5,000 residents.

What’s more, these tourism-oriented businesses directly and indirectly create many year-round jobs for people who love living in this community. Most of the owners live here on a permanent basis and support other local businesses and serve on local boards and committees. For example, you may know my father, Paul, as your accountant. He is also a director for the Village Improvement Association and a regular volunteer in various capacities. My father started his firm here in the 1980s, and if you live on the island there’s a good chance you’re glad he’s around on at least one certain April day each year.

He will be the first to tell you that although tourism is not his direct end market, he would not be here offering his services if not for tourism. This sort of indirect benefit dynamic spills over into a variety of year round industries. Take banking, for example. Bar Harbor supports four banks which are all here in large part because of the opportunity to lend to the tourism industry. This creates high-paying, year-round jobs in commercial lending, as well as additional jobs in administrative support and on down the line. And banking is hardly the only example.

Others include engineering, building, investment advisory, medical services, and entertainment. How many towns of 5,000 sustainably support four banks, a YMCA, an excellent hospital, two grocery stores, two year-round theaters and one seasonal improvisational comedy theater? What’s more, how many towns of 5,000’s theaters are regularly visited by nationally and internationally renowned acts?

All of this is not to mention the taxes these businesses pay. On that subject, it is remiss not to point out that those “big hotels” that Eastport doesn’t have represented eight of Bar Harbor’s top 10 taxpaying properties in the most recent fiscal year. While this may not be a particularly exciting or sentimental point, I would argue it is a particularly important one with crucial practical consequences, what with the fact we live in a town facing massive impending capital spending needs where local option sales taxes are prohibited and where something like 40 percent of the total property assessment is not subject to taxation on account that it is held by not-for-profits.

While I believe strongly that Bar Harbor’s nonprofits including (but not limited to) the Jackson Lab and the MDI Hospital do very important work, have a positive economic impact in the local area and represent tremendous assets to the community in a variety of respects, it is very important to appreciate a certain balance we currently have in Bar Harbor — that if those “big hotels” weren’t here picking up a large portion of the tax burden, that burden would fall even harder on the very same residents who are brought forth by Ms. Goldthwait as the group she is advocating for. Simply put, oft-maligned “big hotels” are helping make our hosting of wonderful nonprofits financially sustainable.

The renowned economist, social theorist and author Thomas Sowell has long been fond of reminding us, “There are no solutions, only tradeoffs.”

All too often, though, when the subject of tourism and the local economy is raised we are presented with “problems” which call for “solutions.” The reality, unfortunately, is that there are no solutions — there is no magic policy which could be implemented which would allow Bar Harbor to thrive as a world-class draw in the summer and also a bustling economic hub in the winter.

Relative isolation from any major port or transportation hub; tight constraints on real estate; harsh winter weather; extremely convoluted and, frankly, nonsensical local zoning regulations … none of these conditions, while I guess one could call them problems, are conducive to any problem-solving exercise (aside from, theoretically, zoning — but the practical challenges there are substantial).

Rather, in a world of tradeoffs, these conditions represent realities with which to contend. Bar Harbor and its advocates have for years done an exceptional job of getting the best deal possible out of the opportunities available to it, and it shows in many quantifiable ways.

Take for example that we’re the number-two-rated cruise destination in the country per a Cruise Critic report, or that lodging traveler ratings are, on average, higher than what one finds when examining many other popular destinations.

As for the idea these achievements of the summer economy are taking place at the expense of the year-round economy? The data simply does not support that conclusion: in fact, examining monthly sales tax data for the Bar Harbor ESA from 2008 through 2018, Bar Harbor’s economic activity is indicated to have expanded — not contracted — at an annual rate of 2.6 percent in the months of November through April, including a 4.6 percent contribution from restaurant and lodging, those two industries so commonly alleged to be taking their summer-only gains at the expense of the winter.

In summary, the data simply lays it all out very plainly — Bar Harbor isn’t perfect, but we’ve wound up on the right side of more than our fair share of tradeoffs.

A great many people — locals and visitors alike — absolutely love Bar Harbor. Continuously characterizing it as a community abounding with problems caused by the tourism industry that has served as its very lifeblood for more than 100 years puts it at risk of becoming a less lovable place by propagating sensationalist myths of a miserable place to live, work, and visit.

Characterizing hardworking neighbors as greedy opportunists and lamenting the difficulty of “uprooting” established businesses once they’ve “sunk their cash” into investments in our town makes it harder for people — most of all, tragically, young upstart types — to do business here and thereby invest in and otherwise contribute to the community and its economy.

Economic growth, whether it be sought in the summer, winter, or sometime in between is not going to just magically appear in a place where it is common to find influential individuals railing against said place’s primary line of business. Rather, prospective investors are going to perceive — and in the case of Bar Harbor perceive accurately, in my view — a place that is unjustifiably hostile to business in general.

While I as a year-round resident and businessperson am nothing short of the first to advocate for any measure that improves winters in Bar Harbor by creating more year-round jobs and just generally generating more wintertime buzz, I believe it is important in doing this that we stop vilifying the tourism industry and those involved in it.

While tourism may not drive a hypothetical economy Bar Harbor doesn’t have and has never had, tourism is far and away the primary driver of the economy we do have — which starts to look awfully healthy upon anecdotal observation of neighboring communities and/or upon more scientific examination of hard facts and figures including property values, sales tax remittances, building permits or a variety of other data.

The fact tourism has made summers so special here is a blessing, not a curse. And we ought to count our blessings, not discard them, take them for granted and/or blame them indiscriminately each time our community seeks to contend with a challenge.

Stephen Coston is a member of the Bar Harbor Town Council and co-owner of The Inn on Mount Desert.

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