After years of fitful efforts to strengthen its status as a year-round recreation destination, rural, western Maine is having a moment.
That's despite the challenges brought by the pandemic — and maybe even be because of them.
It’s been a heck of a summer season at Rangeley’s Lakeside Convenience and Marina. Co-owner Lynn Noyes says there were some dark days early in the pandemic: the store closed, workers were furloughed and she and her husband were initially wary of out-of-town visitors. But in July, droves of tourists started driving up from southern Maine and from out of state, and the couple began to embrace them — from a social distance, of course.
“We went from worrying about bankruptcy to honestly having the best season we’ve had in about ten years,” says Noyes. “Who would have thought? We certainly didn’t.”
And it seems that some of those visitors — from southern Maine, but many from out-of-state — are deciding to put down new roots in Rangeley.
“Stuff that's been sitting for sale five or ten years, gone, gone in a week.”
The Noyes say a transformation is underway.
“I think we’ve had, I’ve heard like 26 new kids in school, which doesn’t sound like a lot, and you have to understand we have 150 K-12, usually. So when you have another 26 kids that’s kind of a lot. I mean everyone is throwing up a for-sale sign on their house.”
The most recent real estate data show that the median price of units sold in Franklin County rose from $150,00 last summer, to $194,000 this summer, a 29.5 percent hike. And statewide the number of out-of-state buyers rose also, to one-in-three.
"The pandemic, quite honestly, has helped us," says Jamie Eastlack of Morton & Furbish Real Estate.
Sitting in his Main Street office in Rangeley’s downtown, Eastlack says that in a typical year, about 20
percent of showings result in a quick sale. This year, he says, it's been more like 80 percent. COVID-19, he says, may not be the only factor driving the trend, but it's certainly encouraging prospects to get off the fence.
“These are people that are new to the area and just jumping in and purchasing property. Just to get to an area that is like this. There's just not a lot of people around, it's beautiful, deep lakes, ski mountain, and Rangeley's really starting to shine."
Like the Noyes, though, Eastlack says there is concern about new pressures on the town. He was preparing one home for sale to an out-of-stater last week, for instance, that would result in the ouster of a young family that was renting it.
Other dynamics are also at work throughout Franklin county.
“I met one couple, they live in a high-rise in Boston, and they have a place on the mountain, and they came up in March to ski and they never left. Actually I know of two families that came up to ski and never left.”
Ben Willauer, a Freeport consultant and former Sugarloaf ski patroller, says he and his wife are joining that emigration. They’ve moved temporarily to a family camp in nearby Eustis so they can enroll their two young children in the Stratton school system. Unlike in Freeport, the Stratton school is offering full-time, in-person instruction this year.
He says the plan is to stay for the long-haul. But, he also knows that could change.
“We’re in a new world now, and everybody can have plans and goals, and that’s terrific. But we’ve learned that you really have to be flexible with what’s possible.”
On top of pandemic buyers, one possibility this winter is an influx of skiers and workers to Rangeley when the Saddleback ski area reopens after being dormant for five years.
“The old lift would take 750 people an hour up the mountain. It took 11 minutes.”
Up by the lodge, a brand-new high-speed lift is nearly complete. The resort’s new CEO, Andy Shepard, says it will unleash the mountain's potential.
"Our new detach is going to take four minutes and will take 2,400 people an hour up the mountain."
Shepard says staff housing is going to be a challenge. And the new management team had been planning to start developing skier condos in about three years, but demand is already so high that Shepard says the schedule is being pushed up.
"For two reasons, one because of COVID. People want to get out of the cities and into a rural environment like Rangeley. The other is that I think there's just a lot of excitement about what's happening at Saddleback, and people want to be a part of this. And had we understood the demand that was out there we would have had it be year one."
For the region’s long-time fans – whether permanent residents or second-home owners, it’s an exciting but somewhat nerve-wracking period.
On Saturday, Massachusetts vacationer Kim Denney, her husband, and her 82-year old mother set out for a hike toward Saddleback. Most summers, she says, family members from New York, Massachusetts and Maine visit their Rangeley vacation home only sporadically. This year, she says, they gathered here, quarantined and really settled in, right into fall.
"'Cause it's easy to be socially distant, even as we're standing here getting ready to hike the mountain."
Denney says she’s excited about the region’s future, but she hopes what makes it special doesn't change.
"Be careful how much you promote. Because it's kind of beautiful, and we like that social distance."
Originally published 5:00 p.m. September 24, 2020