People wave as they ride bicycles down Main Street in Rangeley on Friday. The western Maine town is seeing a boom as people seek a safe haven from the pandemic Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The first snowfall of the season blanketed Rangeley in mid-October, but a summer-like swell of traffic and bustling businesses on Main Street reflected our times: Many people never left because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Those with second homes are staying longer and new buyers are coming to Rangeley, a bucolic lakeside town with 1,200 year-round residents in the western Maine mountains. People are rethinking lifestyles and flocking there to ride out the pandemic in a place they see as safe and beautiful.

Some 25 new students enrolled this year in the K-12 school, which normally has 200 students, and real estate is being snapped up for high prices as it hits the market. Though it is unclear whether the influx is permanent, it is a boon amid a national economic downturn with no end in sight.

On the flip side, the influx is straining services such as the transfer station and post office and leading to worry about whether a supercharged housing market that was already expensive will be pushed further out of reach for many.

“Good, bad or indifferent, if you’re looking for your town to grow, this is a good time to start to attract people,” Stephen Philbrick, a Rangeley selectman and owner of the Bald Eagle Mountain Camps Resort in the village of Oquossoc, said. “But remember that it’s going to have an impact on your municipality, so if your goal is to keep your town small, manageable and affordable, don’t advertise.”

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The median home price in Franklin County, where Rangeley is located, rose 26 percent to $194,000 from this July through September compared to the same three months in 2019. The number of homes sold rose 30 percent to 1,370, according to the latest data from the Maine Association of Realtors. Both percentages are much higher than the average Maine increases of roughly 20 percent in both sales and value.

Most of the new real estate activity in Rangeley is among second-home buyers and sellers. Sellers see an opportunity to get the price they want, and buyers want the safety and amenities of Rangeley, real estate agents said.

As a tourist town that is expensive to live in and has few good-paying jobs, Jamie Eastlack, co-owner of Morton & Furbish Real Estate, said Rangeley hadn’t changed much in the past 20 years.

During the pandemic, the world around it changed sharply. Only 8 percent of employed Americans were working entirely from home before the pandemic hit in February, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. The pandemic led that to rise sharply to 35 percent in May.

Eastlack estimates that about 70 percent of Rangeley’s tax base is paid by second-home owners who may be inclined to stay further into the year now. At the same time, Maine has had the second-lowest rate of coronavirus cases among states behind Vermont. The Rangeley area has only had a handful of confirmed cases, according to state data.

Barbara Thompson has worked at the Rangeley IGA for over three years and said the store has been very busy. “A lot of permanent people are moving in,” Thompson said. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

“It makes total sense to me that an area like Rangeley will prosper from this,” Eastlack said.

Eastlack now expects his agency to almost double last year’s sales in 2020. Interest in the area started to grow in January, when new owners closed on the purchase of nearby Saddleback Mountain ski resort. But interest spiked further as states saw coronavirus cases increase early in the year.

Steve Grant, assistant manager at the Rangeley IGA, said his grocery store has seen a “big, big uptick in traffic.” Restaurants that shut down for dine-in service as the pandemic hit Maine in March were buoyed as well. Jamie Sargent, co-owner of Sarge’s Sports Pub & Grill on Main Street, said he was “happily surprised” by the traffic when business was uncertain. The pub has since been busy.

Philbrick noticed that many who owned second homes in Rangeley quickly came back during the early part of the pandemic. On the road where he lives, more driveways were being plowed out in mid-March than usual.

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David Turner of Concord, Massachusetts, said the pandemic “lit a fire under us” to buy a newly constructed second home near downtown Rangeley. He and his family had been looking for a place in Maine for several years near a lake and skiing. With his two children still in fall sports in Massachusetts, he hopes to move up full time in the winter.

He isn’t the only one who chose Rangeley knowing little or nothing about it. Liz Walker-Feeney, a regional broker for Keller Williams Realty, said she’s had a few people see homes on the internet and buy them sight-unseen seeking a safe place to live.

“We had people from Utah who didn’t even see the house,” she said. “They just packed up a U-Haul and moved here.”

Walker-Feeney and other real estate agents said Mainers also are moving to Rangeley, along with people from Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and elsewhere. She said her properties typically are on the market for 30 to 60 days, but she now sees offers in hours or days. Normally she would have 120 listings this time of year; now there are 33. About 40 percent of buyers pay cash.

Jamie Eastlack, co-owner of Morton & Furbish Real Estate, said Rangeley hadn’t changed much in the past 20 years, but now, the western Maine town is seeing a boom as people seek a safe haven from the pandemic. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Homeowners are enjoying a sellers’ market that often brings in the asking price or multiple bids, she said. The only hiccup is that appraisers and title companies are swamped by the volume of sales, so closings are being moved out at least a couple weeks.

“I think people who have been interested for years realize that if they don’t buy now, nothing’s going to be available,” Ginny Nuttall, broker and owner of Noyes Real Estate Agency, said.

Precise numbers for newcomers to Rangeley, where they came from and whether they will stay permanently are not available. But Town Manager Joe Roach judges it by the increased enrolled students and the 25 percent rise in excise tax collection relative to last September. The town said the majority of new plates were for drivers from Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

“People generally register their car where they live,” he said.

Rangeley Lakes Regional School Principal Georgia Campbell said the additional enrollments this year haven’t strained the school because some students left the district and some are homeschooled or learning remotely.

Signs of people moving in abound. At the town’s main post office, more than 90 percent of its 1,300 boxes are rented now, up from 80 percent this time last year, said U.S. Postal Service spokesperson Stephen Doherty. There were 96 rentals since May alone.

Clockwise from left: For sale signs around Rangeley; View of Lakeside Park in downtown Rangeley; Crystal Sargent, co-owner of Sarge’s Pub & Grub with her husband Jamie, said the restaurant has been very busy; View of Main Street. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

The transfer station saw a 23 percent increase in construction debris since January and 10 percent more household trash, transfer station manager Richard Brown said. He has issued 15 stickers to use the station over the past few months, all to newcomers.

Eastlack said there is some hesitation by townspeople that things are going to change. Philbrick has experienced some tension with the newcomers.

When businesses like his camp and restaurant were allowed to reopen in the spring, some locals reported him for what they thought were violations of state health policies. That died down, then residents of more states were allowed to come to Maine without testing or quarantine in July. Complaints surged as conspicuous visitors added their voices.

“All of a sudden we had another influx of people with rubber gloves up to their shoulders looking like they were getting ready to inseminate a Holstein,” Philbrick said.

The big questions in Rangeley now are how long newcomers will continue streaming in and how long they will stay. The town averages six months of winter weather and about 100 inches or more of snow per year.

“People don’t realize what they’re getting into if they’re moving out of New York City where everything is a subway or bus ride away,” Philbrick said, “and they don’t realize what they’re getting into with a Rangeley winter.

“Some will go back as quickly as they can.”

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