October 16, 2017
From the Editor

Worker shortage and lack of affordable housing go hand in hand

Mainebiz's "On the Road" events are a great way for the staff here to get a feel for what's going on around the state.

Every year, we visit six places in Maine — literally, as it's said, from Kittery to Fort Kent. The events include networking, but also an invitation-only roundtable of local leaders.

In three-and-a-half years at Mainebiz, I have participated in 22 such roundtables. This year we've been in Portland, Norway, Boothbay, Sanford and, most recently, Bar Harbor. Lewiston will be Oct. 26.

This year, the overriding theme of the roundtable discussions has been the shortage of qualified workers.

In Norway, the owner of Norway Brewing lamented that of a half dozen interviews he had lined up, just two people actually showed up. In Sanford, business owners talked about the difficulty of attracting workers when you're not on the Maine Turnpike corridor. On the flip side, Sanford residents are a leading feeder for the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard workforce.

No matter where you are, people talk about the need for affordable housing. It's a big topic in southern Maine, as market rate houses and, um, jumbo-market rate houses go up at a blistering rate.

In the areas around Boothbay and Bar Harbor, the lack of affordable housing is an even greater pressure.

Boothbay, down a long peninsula, has an economy driven by tourism — restaurants, inns and B&Bs, Airbnb, boat excursions and so on.

Bar Harbor has an even greater need for seasonal help, with 3.3 million visitors a year drawn to Acadia National Park and another 124,000 cruise ship passengers. The housing shortage on Mount Desert Island, where Bar Harbor is the hub of activity, is exacerbated by several factors.

There's no development on the national park grounds, including more than 30,000 acres on MDI. There are a large number of seasonal houses, used for a few weeks or months of the year. Many of the seasonal places that were once offered for off-season rentals are now commanding more money on Airbnb, which has some 900 listings on MDI. What few houses are available on the island are unable to handle year-round workers from Jackson Lab, Mount Desert Island Biological Labs, College of the Atlantic and Mount Desert Island Hospital, among other institutions.

There are 1,867 housing units in Bar Harbor, according to the U.S. Census. Bar Harbor itself has a population of 5,335, which swells to many times that in the summer.

It's not hard to see that — if Bar Harbor's median household income is $42,117 and the median housing value is $305,700, according to the U.S. Census — there's a disconnect there.

While seasonal workers may not mind bunking in a spare room, many year-round workers, including those with families, are priced off the island. The farther down the income scale you are, the farther away you're likely to live. It's common to hear of people commuting from Gouldsboro (an hour), Bucksport (an hour and 10 minutes) and Bangor (an hour and 20 minutes).

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