Businesses, workers brace for impact of Acadia’s extended winter closures

Posted March 23, 2013, at 1:23 p.m.
Last modified March 24, 2013, at 5:11 p.m.

BAR HARBOR, Maine — Thanks to deep a federal budget cut, some of the most popular destinations in Acadia National Park will open a month later than usual — a reluctant decision on the part of park officials that could stifle the an island economy dependent on tourism.

Acadia saw an immediate, permanent 5 percent funding cut — $390,000 of it’s roughly $7.8 million budget — on March 1. The cut represented the National Park Service’s share of federal sequestration.

On Thursday, a stop-gap measure to fund the federal government for six months was passed by Congress, which, when signed by President Barack Obama, would cut an additional $30 million from the National Park Service, the impact of which is yet unknown for Acadia.

The cuts come after two years of budget reductions — $300,000 in the 2011-12 fiscal year alone — and increased operating costs which the park had managed to absorb without affecting visitor services, said Acadia National Park Superintendent Sheridan Steele.

To comply with sequestration, the park has extended its winter closures for an additional month, until May 19 instead of the usual opening date of April 15. While the entire park will be open to hikers and bicyclists, as it is year-round, several important motorist routes will be off-limits.

The Park Loop Road will remain closed, as will the road up Cadillac Mountain and the Hulls Cove Visitor Center. When the visitor center is open, hours will be reduced. The Sieur de Monts Nature Center will not open until May 25.

A portion of Park Loop Road known as Ocean Drive — with access to Sand Beach and Thunder Hole and scenic views of Monument Cove and Otter Cliffs — will remain open, as it has been all winter.

The cuts also affect park staffing: Acadia will not fill five vacant, permanent, full-time staff positions, on top of the 18 positions that have gone unfilled in previous years.

Twelve seasonal positions have been eliminated, and 32 seasonal workers will see their terms reduced by two to six weeks. The more than 100 remaining seasonal employees could see a reduction of a month’s pay, thanks to the delayed opening.

Steele said the number of free ranger-led programs will be reduced by half. Programs that cost a fee will remain unchanged.

In previous years, Acadia managed to curb year-round spending, sparing peak-season operations.This time, Steele said, the park could no longer absorb the damage without visitors feeling the sting.

“It’s unfortunate we’re at this point, but we have very little choice,” he said. To the chagrin of many locals, Steele said that because the sequestration cuts are permanent, it’s likely the longer winter closures will be, too.

“It’s not like we can just ‘get through’ this year and get back to normal,” Steele said. The late opening is likely the new normal “unless we can find some other source of revenue.”

According to a report of the most recent data available from the National Park Service in February, Acadia National Park brought more than $186 million into Maine’s economy in 2011, and supported more than 3,000 jobs.

The decision to delay opening in the spring instead of closing earlier in the fall was the prudent one, Steele said. Annually, about 200,000 people visit the park in April and May, as opposed to nearly 700,000 in September and October.

But that arithmetic is little consolation to some in Bar Harbor, who say the park’s decision will pinch the local economy during the “shoulder season” — the months immediately before throngs of tourists descend on Mount Desert Island.

Local businesses have been promoting visitation during the shoulder season in recent years, and say the park’s decision will wind back the clock on their hard work.

“We do have decent visitor numbers during that period, and it will hurt some of the small businesses in town who really depend on that shoulder season visit to make their year,” said Chris Fogg, director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce.

Fogg said there are three cruise ships scheduled to arrive in Bar Harbor before the May 19 opening. Cruise ship passengers usually take chartered bus tours on Park Loop Road and up Cadillac Mountain, and it’s unclear how extended closures may affect the town’s reputation as a popular cruise ship destination.

Michael Boland owns three restaurants and is a partner in a wine and specialty food store in Bar Harbor. He said he understood Acadia’s need to make hard choices in light of mandated budget cuts, but said businesses would be hurt by the decision to open late.

“We small-business owners understand the difficulty of working within a set budget better than most,” he said, “but I wish there had been a solution found that would have encouraged visitation in the difficult shoulder seasons.”

Despite the dismay in some sectors of the business community, some who work and play in Bar Harbor said the impact would be manageable.

Chris Whitcomb is gearing up for his fourth summer working in Bar Harbor. Whitcomb is a manager at the Opera House Internet Cafe and Trailhead Cafe, both of which are owned by Matt and Angel Hochman.

Whitcomb was flying solo at Trailhead Cafe on Friday afternoon, when business was pretty light.

“I’m not super worried about it. The majority of tourists don’t come until the kids are out of school, anyway,” he said. “I was here in mid-May last year and it wasn’t much busier than this.”

Whitcomb said that while he felt the businesses would survive, the real impact may be felt the coming years, not this summer.

“The tourists that do come in the early part of this season will be discouraged from coming at that time again,” he said.

If there are any winners in the sequestration, it may be local residents, who romp through Acadia year-round and will have an additional month to do so free from the traffic that comes with the tourists.

“We like when there are less people around, but I can see it’s bad for the park,” said Brooklin resident Maime LaFrance, who cross-country skied to Sand Beach on Friday. “A lot of people come here to drive up Cadillac, so they’re being denied … but I’m for less cars in the park.”

But the happiness of some locals will do little to stymie the potential economic impact of sequestration on the regional economy. According to the National Park Service’s report on Acadia, the park generates more than 150,000 overnight stays in the surrounding area. And of the $186 million in spending spurred by Acadia in 2011, only $3 million came from “local” visitors.

“It’s a shame that our national parks have to be closed like this. They’re supposed to be for everybody,” said Karen Allred, a visitor from Rock Hills, S.C., who was walking Sand Beach with her two daughters on Friday.

Allred said she’d likely delay another visit to Acadia until the park was completely open, and said she was disappointed that Congress couldn’t strike a deal to avoid sequestration.

“I think it’s sad that we can’t work together as a country to give our citizens the right to go wherever we like to see our national treasures,” she said.

Steele, the park’s superintendent, stressed that while the extended winter closure will undoubtedly hurt, it’s important for locals and visitors alike to know that the park is still open. He said he hoped that any visitor who doesn’t get the experience they bargain for in April or May opts to come back and enjoy the park later in the season.

“I hope that rather than be disappointed in the experience, they decide to come back,” he said.

But at least one Bar Harbor worker said that regardless of how small the impact from the park’s extended closure may turn out to be, it will matter to the businesses and employees whose livelihoods depend on the brief tourism season.

Roy Gott, a 12-year veteran of Ben and Bill’s Chocolate Emporium, was making truffles at the Main Street shop on Friday.

“Every customer, every sale, is important to us,” he said.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.