Some of Maine’s seasonal businesses are going to extremes to house workers

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

About two months ago, Scott Vogel moved out of the house he owns next to his restaurant in downtown Ogunquit and offered it for rent to four of his employees. For Vogel, it was the only way to keep valuable staff when faced with the perfect storm of an overheated labor market and crippling shortage of affordable housing in a tourism epicenter.

There used to be an ample supply of housing units seasonal employees could rent for the summer, but they’ve all been renovated and turned into weekly rentals, said Vogel, who owns the Front Porch and Crew in Ogunquit.

“It’s just crazy. Everyone is renting houses out by the week to make money, ”he said. “Owning two restaurants here, on the kitchen side of things you can’t afford to lose anyone. There is very limited housing for employees. ”

But Vogel won’t be renting out his Ogunquit home to workers forever. He bought a four-bedroom house in Wells to rent rooms to employees, so even he could convert the Ogunquit place into a short-term rental.

Finding an affordable place to stay has long been a struggle for legions of seasonal workers that make Maine’s tourism hotspots hum. The rise of owner-operated, short-term rentals and an extremely expensive housing market have made the problem worse.

Now employers such as Vogel are taking it on themselves to put a roof over workers’ heads. From Maine’s rocky coast to its rural mountains, businesses are converting hotels, buying homes and building dormitories for the staff needed to serve the annual tourist hordes.

A short drive up the coast in Wells, Maine Diner owner Jim MacNeill eyes the purchase of a motel, in part to offer housing for foreign workers on visas, locals or anyone he can hire. “I can’t recruit from anyone who isn’t within a short commute, because they don’t have anywhere to live,” MacNeill said.

Service at the Maine Diner is now limited to breakfast and lunch six days a week and takeout dinner from a food cart a few nights a week. MacNeill needs at least six more line cooks to expand his hours.

“Housing has become such an issue that we have limited the ability to find help,” he said. “I think anyone who is an entrepreneur needs to take it on themselves, because they aren’t going to survive if they don’t.”

FEW ROOMS FOR RENT

A guest house for employees across from the Nonantum Resort in Kennebunkport is full, and trying to find another house in the area for sale or rent is fruitless, said General Manager Tina Hewett-Gordon. The resort may take some of its rooms off the market so it can rent them to staff, and it’s considering a private program with other employers to shuttle employees to and from the less-expensive Sanford area.

“We are trying to beef up staffing numbers and ensure we have proper coverage no matter what it will cost,” Hewett-Gordon said.

The Nonantum is fortunate to have some housing and the option to take a few rooms off the market for workers, she said. It’s not a desirable option, but a lot of businesses don’t even have that.

“It’s a real problem in this area and up and down the coast,” Hewett-Gordon said. “Anyone who has high demand for seasonal staffing is contending with this issue.”

That goes for winter destinations, too. This spring, Sugarloaf ski resort in northern Franklin County bought the Herbert Grand Hotel, about 20 minutes away in Kingfield, to offer extra rooms for seasonal workers. “This is certainly the biggest investment in employee housing we’ve ever made,” said Sugarloaf spokesman Ethan Austin.

The resort plans to renovate the storied hotel and rent its 26 rooms to employees next winter. Over this past winter, the resort was unable to fill 100 open positions out of a seasonal workforce of 800.

“Some of that, for sure, is related to housing,” Austin said. “People who may want to come up and work for a season were not able to work because they were not able to find a place to stay at a reasonable rate.”

Repurposing the Herbert for workforce housing will not solve the problem but it does offer immediate relief.

Facing the same staffing dilemma, Saddleback Mountain in nearby Rangeley plans a 100-bed, slopeside residence reserved for workers. When the ski resort reopened in 2020 after a five-year hiatus, the lack of available housing in the area was a major reason it could not fill a third of its open jobs, said General Manager Andy Shepard.

“If our business model depends on attracting seasonal workers to live and work year-round, there has to be a place for them to stay,” Shepard said. “That is a fundamental need.”

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

“We just have to find a place to put people here,” Shepard said. “Once they get here, we can take care of the needs of Saddleback but also Rangeley.”

HOUSING AND LABOR CRUNCH

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

At the same time, hospitality businesses are still trying to replenish the workforce more than two years after massive layoffs occurred across the industry in the early days of the pandemic. The absence of workers is most deeply felt in the tourism-heavy summer months. In 2019, employers in the leisure and hospitality industry hit a summertime peak of more than 89,000 workers in Maine. Last year, it barely scratched 80,000, more than 10 percent fewer.

Some people on Mount Desert Island started worrying about a housing crunch 20 years ago, and finding a place to live – especially as a seasonal worker – has only gotten harder, said Marla O’Byrne, executive director of the Island Housing Trust. The resulting labor shortage forced businesses to shorten their hours, close hotel rooms or limit services for customers.

“In the midst of booming visitation, businesses are scaling back hours and services,” O’Byrne said. “It’s not because they don’t want to do business – they can’t find people to make the commute or afford to live here.”

Acadia National Park has fallen prey to workforce shortages linked explicitly to a lack of places to live. The park hasn’t been able to hire the full 130- to 150-member staff it needs every summer, leaving it short on lifeguards, rangers, custodians and fee-takers. At the same time, attendance at the park is booming, with about 4 million people coming last year.

“We are seeing record numbers of people coming to Acadia, but we are seeing a workforce to service those visitors that hasn’t increased,” said Park Superintendent Kevin Schneider.

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

Housing appears to be the limiting factor for hiring, Schneider said. When top candidates are interviewed, they are offered housing, and once the beds are gone, finding staff becomes much harder.

Unless someone has relatives nearby, can live in their own trailer or RV, or cobble accommodation together, it is tough to work in the park, he said.

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


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