Three of the four towns on the tourist mecca of Mount Desert Island have recently hired top administrators who will face pressure from growing numbers of tourists and mounting housing prices.
Two of them — Marilyn Lowell in Southwest Harbor and Kevin Sutherland in Bar Harbor — are getting some first-hand experience in the challenges that MDI faces.
Lowell, who had been Southwest Harbor’s town clerk since 2013 and became its town manager last month, is commuting to her job from off-island, where housing prices are cheaper and where a growing number of workers on MDI now live. Kevin Sutherland, a former city administrator in Saco in southern Maine who started his new job as Bar Harbor’s town manager last week, has found only a three-month rental in Bar Harbor to live in while he searches for long-term housing.
They, along with Tremont’s new town manager Jesse Dunbar and Durlin Lunt, who has been town manager in Mount Desert since 2010, are facing development challenges that have come with the island’s ever-growing tourism sector and soaring real estate prices that make it difficult for local workers to find places to live. Affordable housing, seasonal transportation and parking are among the top issues.
Sutherland said that even with all his new connections at the town office, he has only been able to find housing to rent through the end of March. Come April 1, he said, he is not sure where he will live.
“There’s not a lot to look at,” he said of MDI real estate listings for less than half a million dollars.
The housing crunch on MDI has also highlighted the importance of public transportation between the island and nearby communities, Sutherland said.
Just last week the elected Bar Harbor Town Council endorsed a plan to use more paid parking revenue and cruise ship fees to help fund the seasonal Island Explorer bus system which, in addition to carrying tourists, is used by many local workers to get to and from their jobs, especially those who work downtown.
“There’s an absolute connection between transportation and jobs,” Sutherland said.
Transportation is key to Lowell’s job, as she lives off island and drives to work every day. And though parking in Southwest Harbor is not an issue for her — town staff have designated parking — it is becoming increasingly scarce in the downtown village between May and October.
“Each year, it gets busier than the year before,” Lowell said.
Lowell said the town is looking to extend the sidewalk on the west side of Main Street about a half-mile south to make it easier to get around the village without using a car.
Meanwhile, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is drawing more visitors than ever to the island and Acadia National Park — just as employers are struggling to fill positions.
In Bar Harbor, which also is trying to set limits on the growing number of cruise ships that visit each year, the town’s popularity as a tourist destination has severely limited the amount of affordable year-round housing and has put the town under strain from the cars that flood the town between Memorial Day and Indigenous People’s Day each year.
And in other island communities, the demand for tourism venues means considering what smart development looks like. For instance, a controversial proposal to build a large-scale campground near Goose Cove, which later was scaled back, has raised concerns about other development proposals that might come along, said Dunbar, a former code enforcement officer who became Tremont‘s town manager last summer.
Sutherland said the question of how to make sure Bar Harbor continues to be a thriving yet liveable community is clearly a theme to many of the challenges the town faces.
“All these things are clearly reaching a tipping point,” Sutherland said. “What happens when it is too much?”