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March 29, 2024

Amid housing crunch, Maine hotelier opens 84-bed dorm for seasonal workers in Bar Harbor

line of people with ribbon Courtesy / Witham Family Hotels David Witham, managing partner and CEO of Witham Family Hotels, third from right, gets ready to cut the ribbon on Bar Harbor’s first seasonal employee dorm.

In an effort to address the growing shortage of workforce housing in Bar Harbor, Witham Family Hotels cut the ribbon Thursday on an 84-bed shared accommodation facility at 39 Kebo St., designed for seasonal employees.  

The 17,150-square-foot building includes eight kitchens, 23 bathrooms with showers, and laundry facilities on three floors and a basement. 

“It was almost eight years ago to the day that we wrote a letter to the town acknowledging the issues caused by seasonal housing and the impact this was having on our neighborhoods,” said David Witham, the hotel company's managing partner and CEO. “We knew we were indeed part of these challenges and expressed that we genuinely wanted to be part of the solution.”

The building was designed by Geoff Fraser of Fraser Associates Architects in Bar Harbor. Wright-Ryan Construction, of Portland, was the project’s construction manager.

Witham’s firm, based in Ellsworth, owns and operates 13 hotels along the Maine coast including nine in Bar Harbor. He brought the proposal to the town’s planning board in 2022, after voters approved an amendment to the zoning ordinance to allow employee dormitories. 

Witham was involved in the amendment’s planning process, which took several years to iron out. The 39 Kebo St. project is the first of its kind for Bar Harbor. 

Increasingly, Bar Harbor has been grappling with a lack of affordable housing, a trend driven by conversion of units to the lucrative vacation rental market. The town has estimated it will need 616 new year-round dwelling units by 2033 in order to offset the effect of housing stock turned into short-term rental units.

Bar Harbor’s year-round population is 5,269 as of the latest census. But at any given time during the peak tourism season, the population exceeds 30,000. About 10,000 are day-trippers. There’s also a student population at College of the Atlantic and employees who need seasonal quarters.

The 39 Kebo St. project included demolition on the property of a two-story structure that once was part of another inn. 

Construction involved advanced framing techniques that include prefabricated wall, floor and roof systems and a cross-laminated timber elevator shaft, said Alan Sparn, Wright-Ryan’s COO. The project was delivered under budget and ahead of schedule by roughly six weeks, he added. Sparn characterized the project as “a model example for addressing the significant housing needs in Bar Harbor and across our state.”

bed and lamp
Courtesy / Witham Family Hotels
The shared accommodation facility has 84 beds, eight kitchens and 23 bathrooms with showers.

The hotel chain owns housing stock to shelter seasonal employees.

Witham has said the town’s new rule that allows construction of seasonal employee dorms would open up that inventory for year-round housing.

That has already proven to be the case. 

Three families have moved into Witham-owned housing that was previously used for seasonal employees. This winter, Jermel McWhorter and his family moved into a long-term rental home that was previously designated for the use of seasonal employees. McWhorter has worked for the Bar Harbor Inn, a Witham property on the Bar Harbor waterfront, since 2019.

"Living in Bar Harbor just minutes away from work is a dream come true,” McWhorter said. “Commuting from Carmel [west of Bangor] takes roughly an hour and a half each way due to road conditions, limiting time with my family.”

Previously, he said, work schedules and the commute kept him from seeing his kids for days. 

“Being closer now allows me more quality time with my wife and three children, which is invaluable,” he said.

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