Higgins Beach innkeepers resist condo offers, commit to community with rehab project

Posted June 06, 2017, at 1:06 p.m.
Last modified June 08, 2017, at 3:50 p.m.

SCARBOROUGH, Maine — It could have been condos.

Amid the flurry of Portland’s hotel boom, a 1920s inn out on Higgins Beach has quietly undergone a pervasive rehab.

It wasn’t in total disrepair, but the colonial revival building dating back to 1897 was “suffering from deferred maintenance,” according to Phil Kronenthal, director of operations for the Migis Hotel Group, the Maine-based hospitality company that purchased the inn last year.

Now that the once sleepy Higgins Beach Inn joins a portfolio of upscale Migis properties, which includes the Inn at Ocean’s Edge in Lincolnville, 250 Main in Rockland and the Black Point Inn at Prouts Neck, this serene tip of Scarborough gains a new pulse.

“We love old buildings. They have great old bones,” Jesse Henry, director of brand and business development for the group, said. Beyond innkeeping, both men view their role as stewards of a classic property. They met years ago while working at the company’s flagship retreat, Migis Lodge at Sebago Lake. The partners now hope to extend that level of hospitality to Portland’s summertime backyard.

Working with Caleb Johnson Architects and Builders out of Biddeford, the rehab was lightning quick.

“This was a race to the finish. It was our own HGTV,” Kronenthal said. “We closed on Dec. 22 and were swinging hammers by mid-January.”

And those hammers have been busy.

Walking into the Ocean Avenue inn, the first thing returning guests will notice is what’s no longer present. The inn’s prominent staircase has been removed to create more space for Shade, the new dining spot. The relaxed restaurant, bar and expanded deck is one open, casual space.

Bright orange chairs and stools are trendy touches, but odes to the past have not been airbrushed out. A mural of the inn’s timeless exterior is splashed across the walls like a grainy newspaper just inked.

Each of the 23 rooms has been refurbished, retooled and reappointed. Most are enlarged with private baths. They still feel beachy, but with the 2017 trappings of a boutique hotel not a rustic seaside getaway.

New are flat-screen TVs, air conditioning and interior accents, such as the azure-stained wooden walls, plush chairs and vintage Maine tourism advertisements framed on the walls. There is a new force in the kitchen too: Louis Ramirez, former executive chef at Boothbay Harbor Yacht Club.

Locals, like the inn’s previous owner Bob Westburg, are gratified the hotel didn’t become a multi-unit residence. Westburg and his wife Diane Garofalo purchased the inn in 1997 and ran it for 20 years with an upscale dining room and period rooms. Waving away attempts to break up the inn into condos, they eventually sold it to Migis Group for $1.5 million.

“The key to the sale was the business model,” Westburg said. “They are experienced, have the money, management skills and the vision.”

Pleased that the hospitality group has given the inn a rebirth — gutted, rewired and re-plumbed — Westburg will be a regular.

“I am excited that the new era means we will keep the memories we’ve had,” Westburg said. “It will stand at least another 50 years.”

Whereas the former inn’s restaurant had tablecloths and classic meals, the new offering features wine on tap, Damariscotta oysters, fish and chips and cheese burgers. The more casual spot Shade, named for its giant, well protected deck, opens to the public June 9.

“We want everybody,” Kronthethal said. “We want to be part of people’s experience.”

That means surfers will rub sandy elbows with families on break and CEOs in seersucker suits.

Some of the rustic charm might be gone, but few are complaining that a fresh, new gathering spot kicks off the season.

“Without it, the whole beach would change. It’s the backbone of the community,” Westburg said. “I am looking forward to going up and being a patron.”

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