Some seasonal businesses in Maine tend to overaccommodate domestic workers

Scotty Vogel, owner of The Front Porch, a piano bar and lounge in Ogunquit, is renting out his house to bar kitchen workers because the dearth of housing has made it difficult to hire seasonal workers year-round. Other companies that rely on seasonal workers are taking similar steps. Gregory Rick / Staff Photographer

About two months ago, Scott Fogel moved out of the house he owned next to his restaurant in downtown Ogunquit and offered it to rent to four of his employees. For Vogel, this was the only way to retain high-value employees when facing the perfect storm of an overheated job market and a crippling shortage of affordable housing in a tourist hub.

Vogel, who owns Front Porsche & Crewe in Ogunquit, said there were a large number of condominiums that seasonal staff could rent for the summer, but they were all renovated and converted to weekly rentals.

“It’s just crazy. Everyone is renting out their homes by the week to make money.” “Having two restaurants here, on the kitchen side of things you can’t afford to lose anyone. There are very limited housing for the staff.”

But Vogel won’t rent out his home in Ogunquit to workers forever. He bought a four-bedroom house in Wales to rent rooms to staff, so he could turn Ogunquit’s place into a short-term rental.

Finding an affordable place to stay has long been a struggle for the hordes of seasonal workers who make Maine tourism hotspots hum. The emergence of short-term owner-managed rentals and an expensive housing market has exacerbated the problem.

Now employers like Vogel are taking it upon themselves to put a roof over workers’ heads. From Maine’s rocky coast to its rural mountains, companies are converting hotels, buying homes, and building housing for the employees needed to service the annual hordes of tourists.

A short drive from the coast in Wales, Jim McNeill, owner of Maine Diner, is looking to buy a hotel, in part to provide housing for foreign workers on visas, locals or anyone who can rent it. “I can’t recruit from anyone who’s not a short distance from the road, because they don’t have a place to live,” McNeil said.

Service at Maine Diner is now limited to breakfast and lunch six days a week and dinner out from a food cart a few nights a week. McNeil needs at least six other chefs to increase his hours.

“Housing has become a problem that has limited our ability to get help,” he said. “I think any entrepreneur should take it upon themselves, because they wouldn’t survive if they didn’t.”

Rooms for rent

A staff guesthouse across from the Nonantum Resort in Kennebunkport is full, said general manager Tina Hewitt-Gordon, and trying to find another home in the area for sale or rent is fruitless. The resort may take some of its rooms off the market so it can rent to employees, and is considering a special program with other employers to move employees to and from the less expensive Sanford area.

“We’re trying to boost staff numbers and make sure we have adequate coverage no matter what the cost of that,” Hewitt-Gordon said.

She said Nonantum was fortunate to have some housing and the option to take a few rooms off the market for workers. It’s not a desirable option, but a lot of companies don’t even have it.

“It’s a real problem in this area and up and down the coast,” Hewitt-Gordon said. “Anyone with a high demand for seasonal employment is dealing with this problem.”

This applies to winter destinations as well. This spring, Sugarloaf Ski Resort in northern Franklin County purchased the Herbert Grand Hotel, about 20 minutes away in Kingfield, to provide additional rooms for seasonal workers. “This is definitely the largest investment we’ve ever made in employee housing,” Sugarloaf spokesperson Ethan Austin said.

The resort plans to renovate the storied hotel and lease 26 rooms to staff next winter. Over the past winter, the resort was unable to fill 100 vacancies out of a seasonal workforce of 800.

“Some of that, for sure, is housing related,” Austin said. “People who might want to come and work for a season unless they can’t work because they couldn’t find a place to stay at a reasonable price.”

Changing the purpose of the Herbert manpower housing home won’t solve the problem but does provide instant relief.

Facing the same staffing dilemma, Saddleback Mountain in nearby Wrangeley is planning to build 100-bed cliffside housing for workers. When the ski resort reopened in 2020 after a five-year hiatus, a lack of available housing in the area was a major reason it couldn’t fill a third of the open jobs, General Manager Andy Shepherd said.

“If our business model is based on attracting seasonal workers to live and work year-round, there must be a place for them to stay,” Shepherd said. “This is a basic need.”

Arctaris Impact Fund, the investment group that owns the mountain, wants Saddleback House to help support its regional workforce through all four seasons, not just for its own operations.

“We just have to find a place to put people,” Shepherd said. “Once they get here, we can cater to Saddleback but also Rangeley.”

housing and employment

Over the past two years, home prices have skyrocketed across Maine, especially in scenic or attractive communities. Statewide, the median home price in March was about $325,000, a 21 percent increase from the previous year, according to the Maine Association of Realtors. Meanwhile, the number of homes available for sale dwindled, which contributed to creating a competitive market.

Meanwhile, hospitality companies are still trying to renew their workforce after more than two years of mass layoffs across the industry in the early days of the pandemic. The absence of workers is most evident in the summer months, which are crowded with tourism. In 2019, leisure and hospitality industry employers reached peak summer with more than 89,000 workers in Maine. Last year, it barely scratched 80,000, less than 10 percent.

Some people on Mount Desert Island began worrying about the housing crisis 20 years ago, and finding a place to live – especially as a seasonal factor – is becoming more difficult, said Marla O’Byrne, executive director of the Island Housing Trust. The resulting labor shortage has forced companies to shorten their hours, close hotel rooms, or limit services to customers.

“Amidst the boom in traffic, companies are cutting back hours and services,” O’Bearn said. “It’s not because they don’t want to do business – they can’t find people to do the commuting or…afford to live here.”

Acadia National Park has fallen prey to a shortage of manpower, explicitly linked to a lack of living space. The park has been unable to hire the 130 to 150 employees it needs each summer, leaving it short of lifeguards, rangers, guardians, and fee collectors. At the same time, attendance at the park is increasing, with about 4 million people attending last year.

“We’re seeing record numbers of people coming into Acadia, but we’re seeing a workforce to serve those visitors who haven’t increased,” park manager Kevin Schneider said.

The park has appealed to the federal government to free up a plot of land near Bar Harbor so it can add the 80 beds it now has for seasonal workers.

Schneider said housing appears to be the determining factor in employment. When interviewing senior candidates, they are offered housing, and once the family is gone, it becomes more and more difficult to find staff.

He said that unless someone has relatives nearby, can live in their own trailer or RV, or dorm together, it’s hard to work in the garden.

“We’ll tell a candidate, ‘We don’t have housing for you,'” Schneider said. “That’s when we start looking at an endless list of candidates, because no one can work here without housing.”

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