May 27, 2018
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Bar Harbor hotelier remembered for competitive zeal, compassion

By Nick Sambides Jr., BDN Staff
Updated:

The patriarch of one of Bar Harbor’s most successful families — and participant in one of its legendary business rivalries — has died.

David J. Witham died of complications from Parkinson’s disease on Saturday at his home in Boston. The multimillionaire hotelier was 77.

A Massachusetts native, Witham was a savvy and hardworking businessman whose ownership of nine Bar Harbor hotels added class and grace to Mount Desert Island, said Paul Paradis, chairman of Bar Harbor’s Town Council.

“He was a major player in the motel business on the island, and he is one of the folks responsible for developing it into what it is, and I mean that in a good way,” Paradis said Monday.

Witham’s decades-long clash with fellow multimillionaire hotel entrepreneur Thomas J. Walsh defined for many the intensely competitive and sometimes seamy underside of the island’s tourist industry. And while aspects of that rivalry might have been overblown — at least according to Witham’s son, 54-year-old David C. Witham — the ambition that fueled it was real.

“He hated to lose in business, and he hated to lose in going bowling with the family,” Witham said.

“He always felt that if an opportunity arose, he could bring that property to the next level and do it better than the next guy. That’s what drove him,” said Witham, who succeeded his father as CEO of Witham Family Hotels.

The battle between Walsh and Witham gained public attention in 2000. Courtroom struggles ensued. The flashpoint was Walsh’s proposal to acquire and expand the waterfront Golden Anchor Inn. Despite Witham’s appeals to town officials, Walsh eventually purchased and redeveloped the property into the Harborside Hotel and Marina.

Walsh prevailed in another legal dispute with Witham over control of part of the Park Entrance Motel property in the village of Hulls Cove. Walsh acquired it in its entirety when he bought it at an auction for $5.3 million in 2001.

The rivalry was still intense 10 years later, when Witham acquired the Rockhurst Motel. He added the Villager Motel in Bar Harbor to his portfolio a few months earlier, apparently in response to Walsh’s company purchasing the The Ledgelawn Inn out of bankruptcy, also in 2010.

The total assessed value of Walsh’s Bar Harbor hotel properties, more than 750 rooms combined, was more than $47 million in 2010. Witham owned about 750 rooms total with a cumulative assessed value of $34.5 million that year.

At the time of his death, Witham’s holdings included his flagship Bar Harbor Inn, the Acadia Inn, Bar Harbor Hotel, Bar Harbor Quality Inn, the Bar Harbor Grand, the Hampton Inn of Ellsworth and several other hotels in Maine co-owned with the three sons of the elder Witham’s sister.

The different investments, Paradis said, showcased Witham’s meticulousness.

“One thing about David Witham,” Paradis said, “he hit all the markets.”

Yet, Witham’s competitive nature never obscured his generosity and warmth. He would readily help anyone, especially his workers, with money and mentoring, often without their knowledge and with no acclaim, said his son, who established the Witham Family Hotels Charitable Fund to carry on his legacy.

The recipients of Witham’s donations during his lifetime included the Caron Foundation, College of the Atlantic, Merrimack College, Friends of Virgin Islands National Park and St. Patrick’s Church of Roxbury, Massachusetts, said his daughter, Christine Witham.

Witham wasn’t afraid to mix lessons of tough love and tenderness. When his 17-year-old grandson, Zack Witham, was 9, the elder David Witham taught him to play blackjack. Much to his mother’s horror, Zack and his grandfather had $300 on the table ― and Zack was winning.

Witham then proceeded to win it all back, ruthlessly enough to send his grandson running away in tears. Yet on Saturday, as the family mourned its loss, Zack announced that the game was his favorite memory of his grandfather, the younger David Witham said.

“My wife reminded my son how upset he was and questioned how that could be his favorite memory,” Witham said. “He replied that Grampy later gave him some money back when no one was looking.”

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