Interview: As Tourists Arrive, Here's The View From Different Parts Of Maine
With the summer tourism season rapidly approaching, Morning Edition Host Irwin Gratz got an update from three Mainers who previously shared the outlook from their corners of the state on his show.
They are Kim Smith, who works for the city of Presque Isle and is vice chair of Aroostook County tourism; Liz Graves, who works for the town of Bar Harbor; and Savannah Sessions, executive director of the Bethel Historical Society.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Gratz: Kim, before we talk about summer, how was last winter up in the county?
Smith: Actually, it went very well. We were fairly fortunate up here as far as COVID went, and people still seem to flock up here. We had about 80,000 snowmobile registrations. If we had had the regular snow, I think we would have had a banner season.
Savannah, how about in ski country there in western Maine?
Sessions: Everybody who possibly could move here has moved here. So it was packed with new locals.
As we move into some of the brighter and warmer days of spring, usually it's good for everyone's mood. But I'm curious about this year: there's been news of progress on the COVID vaccine front, but there's still more cases. There's still been more people who died. Still lots of online schooling. Savannah, what's people's overall mood like, especially as it relates to the pandemic right now?
Sessions: Oxford County has had a bit of a struggle. You know, I think the combination of excitement about vaccination availability and restrictions lifting and all of that kind of got ahead of itself a little bit. But cases are kind of leveling out here, and so that is really encouraging. All signs are pointing to a busy summer, because we do lots of outdoor things here in Bethel. So the fact that outdoor possibilities exist is great. And at the same time, our movie theater, our bowling alley, restaurants, everybody is thriving right now.
Kim, what about up in northern Maine?
Smith: Up here in Aroostook County, we have a very high percentage of older adults. 19.2% of our population is 65 and older. So it's important for our older adults to be vaccinated because the isolation is so difficult for them. So they're really looking forward to getting out, and I think they feel so much safer and better now that they have been vaccinated. Tourism season has already started here. The city's planning on our outdoor concert series this year, which we couldn't really have last year. So yeah, we're very optimistic and anxious.
Liz, obviously summer tourism is is huge on Mount Desert Island. What are folks expecting there?
Graves: We were blown away with how early the ball got rolling here. It was way earlier than normal: stores that were open, and restaurants and things had their best April ever by a lot, because everyone was already here.
The other thing that I want to mention about Bar Harbor that will be different this summer, is again cruise ships. Sounds like there may be a possibility that some cruise ships will sail before the season ends, although not at the beginning?
Graves: Yeah, there's a lot, a lot, a lot that has to happen before any of the big ships can get permission. There are way more rules on cruise tourism than any other kind of tourism.
I'm curious to ask each of you, as businesses gear up for summer tourist season, what about the employment picture and whether or not they will be able to find people or whether there are perhaps more jobs available than people that summer? Savannah?
Sessions: I've seen a lot of help wanted signs. I think people are anticipating this busy summer. On the other hand, we are like, 'we need more businesses to come here.' Not from businesses closing, just from increased visitors, increased population. We're desperate for some restaurants, like if you are an entrepreneur and you would like to start a restaurant, come to Bethel. So yes, lots of service industry jobs, lots of school jobs. Schools just have not been able to fill the positions that they've created.
Liz, this is always an important issue in major tourist areas like Mount Desert Island, just finding enough seasonal help. Past years, there have been some questions about enough permission for foreigners to come in and fill some slots.
Graves: Lots of lots of help wanted signs here, too: pages upon pages upon pages of help wanteds in the newspapers. Folks that I've talked to aren't too nervous. They know how to do this, even though it's of course a challenge.
Kim, there's something else too for folks in northern Maine, although we can't be sure what will happen through the summer at the moment: the Canadian border is still essentially closed. How is that affecting things?
Smith: It's huge. First of all, you know, you have people who cross back and forth for jobs. If they're essential workers, they can still cross so that has helped. The economy has taken a big hit because of that. We relied heavily on Canadian dollars coming into the community, we're only 15 minutes from the border. You know, the lack of people coming to the restaurants, coming to shop, coming to go to school. That's been difficult. We've heard that Canada is enjoying it a lot, because now the people are spending the money over there, instead of coming over here. It has actually caused some of the border crossings to close. You have families who are separated.
In trying to help the country, Congress has passed a few very large aid packages. The most recent one was in March. The state is going to have a lot of money to spend from those. I'm curious to find out what you think your areas need most right now. Savannah, you want to start?
Sessions: The number one need in our area is affordable housing, and connectivity. In Rangeley, you can't even get internet service. It makes it really hard because people want to move to these places and live there, but they can't.
Liz, how about on MDI?
Graves: I would echo those two priorities and add childcare for sure. The Jackson Lab, which is our biggest employer, says that housing and childcare are enormous priorities and actually hurdles as they recruit talented folks from around the world to come do the really cool work that they do.
Smith: The real estate here is just absolutely crazy. Houses are lasting on the market a maximum of four days. And the problem is it's artificially inflating the costs so local residents are having a difficult time affording the homes right now.