A man gazes in a store window near a 'help wanted' sign posted near the entrance of a Main Street t-shirt shop  in downtown Bar Harbor, Maine on Monday, May 15, 2023. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

A year ago, Bar Harbor business owners didn’t know what to expect as they busily tried to fill their staffs and get ready to open their doors.

The 2020 and 2021 tourism seasons had been difficult. COVID-19 concerns kept many tourists away in the summer of 2020, while in 2021 a crush of tourists and a severe lack of workers led many businesses to limit their hours or services.

The 2022 tourist season ended up being more “normal” than the prior two years, but still had challenges due to continued high demand with historically high numbers of visitors and the ongoing labor shortage.

This spring, as the traditional Memorial Day kickoff to the summer draws near, local tourism business owners and managers say they are confident it will be another busy year but they think the business and business concerns will be more predictable.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Gary “Bo” Jennings, general manager of Side Street Cafe. “It’s shaping up similar to what it was like last year.”

Like Jennings, hotelier Stephen Coston uses foreign workers made available by the federal H-2B visa program to help fill out his workforce. Last year, his visa workers didn’t arrive until July — late for a season that begins in May. That was an improvement over 2021 when he had no visa workers at all.

But this year is already panning out to be even better. Coston has been able to get his visa workers lined up and in place before Memorial Day, which also makes him less apprehensive about the coming summer.

“Relative to the challenges of the past two years, this year for me so far feels like a piece of cake,” Coston said.

Still, even with foreign workers returning in pre-pandemic numbers, the foreign worker program can be a crapshoot, Coston said, and not every employer gets lucky by being randomly chosen to get their workers early in the season.

Employers must provide housing to their visa workers, which helps them in the housing-starved coastal town. But for American employees who also staff the businesses, housing is often a deal-breaker for whether or not they can accept a job offer. Real estate prices on Mount Desert Island have soared in recent years, forcing many labor-wage workers to seek housing off-island.

Jennings said he oversees about 100 employees at Side Street Cafe, including visa workers, and provides beds for about 40 of them.

“We wouldn’t be open [without adequate employee housing],” he said. “It’s that simple.”

Coston and Jennings have their businesses largely staffed and have already opened their businesses for the summer. But several restaurants and shops in downtown Bar Harbor are still trying to get ready. As of Wednesday evening, more than a dozen tourist businesses had signs posted in their windows saying they were hiring.

At Downeast Pizza, a new business opening on Cottage Street in a space formerly occupied by a Subway sandwich shop, the owner is still looking for pizza chefs.

“Four cooks I am trying to get,” said Robin Wright, who also owns Downeast Deli and The Pink Pastry Shop in downtown Bar Harbor, as well as Sugar Bakery in Trenton.

Wright had four cooks lined up for her multiple businesses through the H-2B program, but that their visas inexplicably fell through, forcing her to start searching all over again, she said. Now, she is ready to hire anyone qualified for the work, wherever she might find them.

She needs to fill 30 positions total at her four businesses but has only hired 11 people so far, including five foreign students coming to work for the summer through the separate J1 visa worker program, she said. If she cannot find 30 employees, she said, she can get by with 20 but would have to pay out a lot of overtime to maintain normal business hours.

Wright has housing for eight employees in downtown Bar Harbor, and for another eight in neighboring Trenton. She also has an approved site in Trenton where one of her regular returning employees parks his camper each summer. She said housing is so important, the first question she asks prospective employees is if they have a place to live. The second question is how much experience they have. Although she said her businesses did great last summer, she thinks staffing will continue to be a challenge.

“I have built housing for my staff, and I bought a house in Trenton so they could have affordable rent,” Wright said. “But even with these aces up my sleeve, I am struggling.”

Bar Harbor isn’t alone in the labor shortage issue for seasonal employees, said Everal Eaton, the new director of the local Chamber of Commerce. It’s a national problem, and staffing and employee housing have become the top two challenges for local seasonal businesses, Eaton said.

“Everyone is trying to find solutions, but there are no easy answers,” he said.

Still, business is expected to be good this summer. Eaton said Chamber members have told him their 2023 sales and reservation figures so far are similar to what they had this time last year, which was Acadia National Park’s second busiest year eve r. That’s a good sign.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....