People living in tourist destination towns such as Old Orchard Beach, Greenville, Camden-Rockland and of course Bar Harbor may be forgiven for affixing bumper stickers to their cars that read, “Don’t hassle me — I’m a local.” It can be a hassle to live in these communities and try to make it in and out of the post office, grocery store, bank and gas station at the height of summer.
Of course, there are benefits to living in such towns, not the least of which is that prosperity reigns, at least when tourists are there. Restaurant, hotel and motel and shop owners spend their money locally, employing tradespeople, buying supplies and often hiring locals as cooks, clerks, wait staff and housekeepers. And business owners bear much of the weight of property taxes.
But what about a tourist town’s character? Is it worth fighting to keep intact? Or does the very nature of being a tourist town mean letting visitors define you? Bar Harbor residents are continually asking themselves these questions, and the latest round may be inspired by the large hotels creeping along the waterfront on West Street. There is nothing shabby about the hotels, built by Bangor native Tom Walsh and his Ocean Properties firm. They are built to high-quality standards and in many ways recall the hotels that first drew the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts.
With rooms going for $200 a night, the hotels will draw a new generation of well-heeled visitors. It may have the ripple effect of raising room rates elsewhere, or it may lower rates, with the addition of a significant number of new rooms.
Bar Harbor is not frozen in time the way that, for example, Monhegan Island looks much as it did 50 years ago. The town has been transformed by its visitors — the wealthy summer rusticators of the late 19th century, the motel-hopping, station wagon-driving middle class of the 1960s, the young urban professionals of the late 1980s, and most recently the newly wealthy investors who scored big on the late 20th century stock market.
Ask the New York couple who visit Bar Harbor each summer about their impressions of the town, and they are likely to describe the endearing seaside vibe. They may recall the thrill of seeing a schooner ease into the wind off the town pier one fine morning, watching the sun set from the peak of Cadillac Mountain or a satisfying meal at a Cottage Street bistro followed by a lovely evening stroll past the village green. Ask a local, and he or she likely will express concern about the number of cruise ship passengers on the streets, the declining stock of affordable houses and the boarded-up nature of the town in winter.
Large, high-end hotels along the waterfront, displacing small restaurants and gift shops, will change the nature of Bar Harbor. As long as residents continue to ask themselves what they want the town to look and “feel” like, they can — and should — shape that change.