The view overlooking Penobscot Bay from Point Lookout in Northport. Credit: Lauren Abbate | BDN

Just three months after new owners purchased Point Lookout Conference Center in Northport, they have decided that running it as a business is not financially viable and will be closing it to the public sometime in December.

The sprawling events center, which formerly served as a corporate retreat for the MBNA credit card empire, is the largest employer and the largest property taxpayer in the midcoast town, and has been a popular destination for weddings and other events for years.

“It’s been very hard for the owners and everyone involved,” Matt Arrants of the Pinnacle Advisory Group, which is representing owners David and Tami Hirschfeld, said Monday evening. “We’ve really worked our hardest to do right by everyone.”

The news, which began to trickle out during the weekend, has left many in Maine and beyond reeling as they have tried to figure out what it will mean to them. That includes employees, which a Northport town official estimated numbered about 70, wedding vendors and people who had booked their weddings at Point Lookout in 2020.

“The last couple of days have really been a scramble,” Mark Verrill of Marlborough, Massachusetts, said Monday. “[My fiancee] was really, really upset. It was the only place we looked at. We’re basically trying to replan our wedding … now we’re starting the entire process over again.”

Corporate roots

Point Lookout was originally developed by MBNA a little more than 20 years ago. The 387-acre property on Ducktrap Mountain overlooks Penobscot Bay and features multiple buildings, including a bowling alley, two event centers and 106 cabins. After MBNA sold its Maine holdings to Bank of America, Point Lookout changed owners, too. It was purchased by athenahealth in 2011 for $7.7 million and then in March was purchased by the Hirschfelds, the principals of the Montana-based Deep Creek Grazing Association, for an undisclosed amount of money.

Last year, the Hirschfelds sued athenahealth over the property, claiming that the company had reneged on a promise to sell it for $7 million. But this March, Arrants said in a news release that the Hirschfelds were “ proud to take the helm of such a majestic property, one that offers guests, wedding couples and corporate clients an authentic Maine experience.”

[Subscribe to our free morning newsletter and get the latest headlines in your inbox]

He said this week that the Hirschfelds had hired his hotel asset management company to study the property.

“It’s tough to know from a hotel perspective what the financials will look like,” Arrants said. “It took us a while to analyze it and dig into the operating numbers.”

When they did, they learned some bad news. The numbers just didn’t work.

“It was not an easy decision,” Arrants said. “There are a lot of problems with that resort. It was built as a conference center and it’s a challenging operation. There are a lot of buildings there. It’s not an efficient layout. It’s not very practical for other types of use, for weddings or for independent travelers.”

Another problem is that it’s about 20 years old, which is often the useful life span of critical elements such as roofs and heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. He said that the Hirschfelds are still trying to figure out what to do with it in the future, but that they needed to immediately make a decision about keeping it open next year. They chose against that.

“We’re trying to encourage as much business as we can” until then, Arrants said, adding that the property employs housekeepers, accounting people, groundskeepers, servers and more. “Our goal is to keep all the employees busy and happy, to do what we can for them. That’s really our top priority.”

People react to closure

Barbara Ashey, the Northport town administrator, said that Point Lookout has been a big part of Northport since its inception. The town values the property at just more than $14 million, she said, and the new owners recently asked for a tax abatement. The assessors that Northport contracts with are working with them now on the request, and if an abatement is granted, it will be felt around the community, she said.

“It would be noticable,” Ashey said. “There isn’t another business in town waiting in the wings to pick that up. It would fall on all the residents.”

As well, she said that many of the people who work there have been at Point Lookout for some time.

“It’ll be hardest on them,” she said.

Cyndi Clayton, a makeup artist from Rockland, isn’t employed by Point Lookout; she has her own company, From This Day Forward. But she works at the venue often, helping brides and others in a wedding party look their best. Clayton was at an event last weekend when she heard the news of the impending closure.

“I was shocked,” she said. “I know there are going to be a lot of people running around looking for jobs. Hopefully, there are enough jobs out there to keep people busy, but it’s tough when you’ve been in a certain field for a long time.”

The cancellation of all of next year’s weddings at Point Lookout will be felt well beyond Northport and Waldo County, according to Erica Godino of Closer North Photography in Brewer.

“My couple for 2020 is scrambling to look for another place,” she said. “It definitely does have a ripple effect on our industry.”

Although 2020 may seem far away, in the world of wedding planning, it’s not that much time. Reuben Bell, the editor of Real Maine Weddings and the owner of Blue Elephant Events and Catering of Saco, said that he is in the middle of his 2020 booking season right now.

“The venue is the first thing most people choose,” he said. “Once you have a big decision like your venue made, you don’t expect to have to change it.”

However, he said that Maine is fortunate in that there are other great wedding locations. He also said that wedding professionals started to pull together to help as soon as they learned of Point Lookout’s impending closure.

“I think that’s one really nice thing about the Maine wedding industry,” he said. “People really do try to step up when something like this happens, in order to fill in the gaps.”

Even beyond the wedding scheduling, at least one Mainer is hoping that the new owners of Point Lookout will be able to find a new strategy that works for them and for the community.

“I hope that it’s a phoenix and it plans on coming back as something bigger and better that would benefit the town of Northport,” Ashey said. “We hope it’s not being shuttered. We hope that it will turn into something else.”

Related: Harpswell dairy barn now destination for weddings