You might be on Monhegan Island, or traveling downeast along Route 1. You’ll see a few houses and a few people. A store. A pickup truck. And you’ll wonder, “What do these people do to earn a living, anyway?”
As recently as a few decades ago, the answer was almost always this: living off the land and water.
They might have fished, harvested their own woodlots, or managed gravel pits, but work here usually fell into a category that was awfully close to that of survival. Of course, many still do three jobs, but hardscrabble work is no longer the only game in town. Today a coastal Mainer just as likely might be a former New Yorker editor, a farmer who grows organic produce for gourmet restaurants, or a financial consultant who handles his clients by fax and e-mail. And you’ll find lots of folks whose livelihood depends on tourism, whether it’s the lone tour guide, the high school kid working the local T-shirt shop, or the tow-truck driver hauling fancy cars around Mount Desert Island after they break down.
This slow change in the economy is but one of the big shifts facing Maine and New England. The most visible and wracking change involves development and growth; for a region long familiar with poverty, a spell of recent prosperity and escalating property values has threatened to bring to Maine that curious homogenization already marking suburbs and hip urban neighborhoods in the rest of the nation.
Once a region of distinctive villages, green commons, and courthouse squares, parts of coastal Maine have come to resemble suburbs everywhere else—a pastiche of strip malls dotted with fast-food chains, big-box discount and home-improvement stores, and the like.
While undeniably convenient, this is nothing short of shocking to longtime residents. Coastal towns have long maintained their identities in the face of considerable pressure. The region has always taken pride in its low-key, practical approach to life. In smaller communities, town meetings are still the preferred form of government.
Residents gather in a public space to speak out about—sometimes forcefully—and vote on the issues of the day, such as funding for their schools, road improvements, fire trucks, or even symbolic gestures such as declaring their towns nuclear-free. “Use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without” is a well-worn phrase that aptly sums up the attitude of many longtime Mainers—and it’s the polar opposite of the designer-outlet ethos filtering in.It’s not clear how this ethos will survive the slow but inexorable encroachment of generic consumer culture. You see it already, as chain stores like Walmart and Banana Republic proliferate in places like the mall-heavy sprawl on Portland’s fringes, the shopping outlets of Kittery and Freeport, and the Route 1 conglomeration near Bucksport and Ellsworth. In some of these spots, Main Street has surged back defiantly and vibrantly (in Kittery, Ellsworth and South Portland in particular), but where big boxes proliferate, regional identity is at risk.
Meanwhile, the rest of coastal Maine is figuring out how best to balance the principles of growth and conservation—how to allow the economy to edge into the modern age without sacrificing those qualities that make Maine such a distinctive place. Development is a hot issue, but it isn’t white-hot—yet. Few locals have adopted the view that development should be allowed at all costs.
On the flip side, few tend to think that the land should be preserved at all costs, either. They’re not all that happy about rising property taxes and land prices—unless they happen to own a chunk of the coast, in which case they’re probably putting up the FOR SALE signs as we speak.
Real estate prices spiked during the pandemic, in part thanks to a wave of urban expats from elsewhere in the northeast, freed up to work remotely and attracted to Maine’s low transmission rates and quality of life. COVID hit some sectors hard—lobstering, for instance, and Portland’s restaurant scene—but tourism trucked along, keeping businesses thrumming across much of the state and making the pandemic hiring crunch the biggest hurdle for Maine’s economy. Hours and seasonal closures at many hotels, restaurants, and shops also underwent big changes during the pandemic, so double check websites before heading out as some are still in flux.
If America fully embraces the remote workplace, Maine can expect the throngs of new arrivals (and the real estate boom) to continue, exacerbating the age-old tensions between development and preservation. Will the Maine coast be able to sustain its tourism industry if it’s blanketed with new subdivisions and strip malls? Unlikely. The question is how to respect the conservation ethic while leaving room for growth, and the future of Maine looks wildly different depending on how that question is answered.
Complicating things, Maine’s economy has been unpredictable, with tourism on the rise but few consistent trend lines. The mid-1990s saw a slump, then another in the wake of the housing bubble, and recent years have ushered in a steady uptick in visitors. Winners and losers in other sectors have been both predictable (service jobs are up, paper mills keep closing) and surprising (small farms are booming, once-salty Portland shows promise as a tech hub). Through all the ups and downs, resourceful locals somehow found a way to buy and fix up farmhouses and keep their trucks running and dogs happy. Entrepreneurship has surged: Turn over a few stones, and it’s remarkable how many self-owned enterprises you’ll find along this coast.
One change is all but inevitable: Property values will continue to rise as city folks increasingly seek a piece of whatever it is that makes rural Maine special, particularly in a post-pandemic landscape. Commentators believe this change, while welcome after decades of slow growth, will bring new conflicts. The continuing embrace of the remote workplace has made it easier for telecommuters and info-entrepreneurs to settle the coast’s more far-flung villages. How might comparatively affluent newcomers feel about increased coastal development or growing numbers of tour buses cruising their quaint harborside streets? How will locals respond to all the new money—with envy, or with open arms? And how much will the state’s priceless natural resources become stressed by increased tourism or development?
Change doesn’t come rapidly to the Maine coast. But there’s a lot to sort out, and friction will certainly continue to build, one waterfront condo at a time. One thing is for sure: It will be interesting to see how it plays out.
Maine: A Recent Discovery? Hardly!
Think Maine is your little secret getaway? Think again: This coast has seen wave after successive wave of visitation, beginning at least 3 centuries ago when European newcomers tried to settle it, only to be driven off by Native Americans. (It’s also locally believed that Vikings may have touristed—er, pillaged?—the region even longer before that.)
By the early 19th century, the Maine coast had become well colonized and blossomed into one of the most prosperous places in all the United States. Shipbuilders constructed brigantines and sloops, using stout pines and other trees floated downriver from Maine’s North Woods; ship captains built huge, handsome homes in towns such as Searsport, Kittery, Bath, and Belfast; and merchants and traders built vast warehouses to store the booty from the excursions, as well as their own grandiose homes.
Then things quieted down for a while, until landscape artists “rediscovered” Maine. In the mid-to-late 19th century, they brought in their wake a fresh influx of city dwellers from Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, seeking relief from the heat and congestion of the city. The huge, shingled seaside estates they built lined the coast in places such as Bar Harbor and Camden.
At the beginning of the 20th century, a newly moneyed emerging middle class (a third wave?) showed up to discover Maine yet again, building smaller, less expensive bungalows by the shore in places such as York Beach, Kennebunk Beach, and Old Orchard Beach. The next arrival? That’s you, dear reader.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.