Maine town braces for a storm

SUN JOURNAL

Retreat: Kennebunkport weathers what comes with being the chosen getaway for the first family.

January 28, 2001|By Marego Athans | Marego Athans,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

KENNEBUNKPORT, MAINE - This seaside town, with its storybook shops, historic homes and roads designed for the horse-and-buggy, has yet to fully recover from the first Bush presidency, which drew a daily convoy of tour buses and curiosity seekers wanting a look at the Bush family's Walker's Point coastal compound.

Now, with town leaders and residents in a protracted battle over buses, traffic, parking and public restrooms, along comes Bush II - complete with Secret Service, motorcades, road blockades, demonstrations and other presidential fare.

It's too early to predict the impact of the new Bush presidency here, largely because the president is a Texan who apparently prefers riding his tractor in the brush and chopping wood on his Texas ranch to fishing the cold, choppy waters favored by his father.

But Kennebunkport, which became the site of a summer White House during the elder Bush's administration, is expecting a presidential visit for at least a couple of weeks each summer - which happens to be the height of the tourist season, when streets are already jammed and parking impossible.

"The general consensus is we did it before, we'll do it again," shrugs Kevin Campbell, a local builder and member of the town's board of selectmen. "The first few times it was fun and exciting to be stopped at a road, but when it gets to the third or fourth time, it gets kind of old.

"It's one of those things you have to deal with, like the temperature, which has been zero every morning for the past few days."

Even without a president-in-residence, townspeople are already divided over the burgeoning tourism: Is it keeping the town afloat or destroying the qualities that make people want to visit?

The debate has animated town meetings and become the subject of a lawsuit and a ballot referendum, and contributed to delays in planning a new Town Hall. A vocal group of residents has pressured town officials to restrict the roughly 1,200 buses a year that come to Kennebunkport, but so far the town has found no clear legal way to do it.

"I don't think the town should be promoting tourism," says Susan Graham, a member of the board of selectmen. "For people running a hotel or bed and breakfast, I'd think what they're trying to sell is a certain ambiance. It's a place of great natural beauty. People want to walk around. There's something that doesn't fit that picture about having a great number of tour buses circulating in a residential district. ... It's killing the golden goose."

Merchants, however, say that tourism is their lifeblood, and claim that the residents complaining about tourism tend to be recent arrivals who found the town as tourists but now want to shut the door.

"The real locals don't care about the buses," says Bill Carey, who owns a candle and accessory shop with his wife, Carole. "They don't mind sharing the town."

Kennebunkport is where the elder Bush has spent nearly every summer since boyhood. It also has been a tourist destination for as long as anyone can remember, drawing visitors to its rivers, rocky coast, beaches, quaint shops and cozy restaurants. Even the official letterhead describes the town, founded in 1653, as "Maine's Finest Resort."

Kennebunkport shares an identity and some services - such as the Chamber of Commerce - with neighboring Kennebunk. The name was adopted from a Native American word meaning "long cut bank," believed to have referred to the mouth of the Mousam River, an important landmark for anyone traveling along the coast.

The first Bush presidency, beginning in 1989, tapped the tourist trade far beyond the stalwart Maine-lover. The celebrity factor lured binocular-toting travelers hoping for a glimpse of Bush family members at the rustic stone and shingle compound set on a spectacular point jutting off a narrow oceanfront drive.

For merchants, it was a bonanza that spawned Bush-related memorabilia such as "Kennebushport" T-shirts and Christmas ornaments in a miniature likeness of the former president's boat, the Fidelity. Despite grumbling about traffic and parking, residents seemed to take pride in their famous part-time residents.

Everyone has a story - bumping into the former president at Mabel's Lobster Claw restaurant; a bride and groom grabbing a photo opportunity as the elder Bush pulls up to a dock on his speedboat and invites them aboard; the time the Bushes strolled into town in the dead of winter and ended up with so many curiosity seekers following them that the Secret Service had to shepherd the former first couple into the town pharmacy, lock the doors and call a limousine to take them home.

Townspeople learned to be tolerant; every time former President George H.W. Bush was on the move, whether to play golf, go to church or go out to dinner, police blocked off part of Ocean Avenue, forcing residents onto back roads.

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