Business

A few of Maine’s seasonal businesses have gone to extremes to the home workers.

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Businesses are dependent on tourism to rent hotel rooms and private residences to employees. Some are also building new homes for their workers on seasonal vacations.

Two months ago, Scott Vogel moved out of the home he owned close to his eatery in Ogunquit and offered the house for rental to his four employees. For Vogel, it was the only option to retain his staff facing the severe storm of a soaring labour market and the crippling lack of housing affordable in a tourist centre.

There were plenty of rental units that seasonal employees could rent out during the summer months. Still, they’ve been renovated and converted into rental homes for the week, according to Vogel, who runs his property, the Front Porch and Crew in Ogunquit.

“It is just insane. Everybody is renting out houses every week to earn some money.” He said. “Owning two restaurants here on the kitchen side, it’s impossible to let anyone go. There’s very little housing for employees.”

However, Vogel isn’t going to rent out his Ogunquit house to employees forever. He purchased a four-bedroom home in Wells to rent rooms to employees so that he could even turn the Ogunquit property into a temporary rental.

Finding a reasonable accommodation has for a long time been a struggle for the millions of seasonal workers who create the buzz in Maine’s tourist destinations. The growth of privately-owned, short-term rental properties and an expensive housing market have caused the issue to get worse.

Now, employers like Vogel are taking on themselves to create a roof over their employee’s heads. From Maine’s coast, which is rocky, to its mountains in the countryside, Businesses are turning hotels into apartments purchasing homes, and constructing dormitories for the personnel needed to accommodate the annual tourist hordes.

A short drive to the coast to Wells, Maine, Diner’s proprietor Jim MacNeill eyes the purchase of a motel in part to provide accommodations for foreigners with visas, locals and anyone else that he could employ. “I can’t recruit from anyone who isn’t within a short commute because they don’t have anywhere to live,” MacNeill explained.

The service of The Maine Diner is now limited to lunch and breakfast six days per week and takeout meals from a food truck every few days. MacNeill requires at minimum six-line cooks to extend his hours.

“Housing has become such an issue that we have limited the ability to find help,” said the CEO. “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 guesthouse for employees adjacent to Nonantum Resort. Nonantum Resort in Kennebunkport is filled, and attempting to locate a new property in the area available to rent or sell is futile, according to General Manager Tina Shewett-Gordon. The resort is likely to remove some accommodation from the market so that it could rent them out to employees and is considering the possibility of a private arrangement together with other employers to transfer employees between and to the more affordable Sanford region.

“We are trying to beef up staffing numbers and ensure we have proper coverage regardless of what that will cost,” Hewett-Gordon stated.

The Nonantum is lucky to have a few homes and the option of taking some apartments off the market to employees, she explained. This isn’t a good option; however, many companies do not have this.

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

This is true for winter getaways Also. In the spring of this year, Sugarloaf skiing resort in North Franklin County bought the Herbert Grand Hotel, located about 20 minutes from Kingfield, to provide additional rooms to workers on seasonal vacations. “This is certainly the biggest investment in employee housing we’ve ever made,” said Sugarloaf spokesperson Ethan Austin.

The resort plans to revamp the hotel’s history and rent the hotel’s 26 bedrooms to staff over the following winter. This winter, the alternative could not fill 100 positions of a workforce that were seasonal 800.

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

Repurposing the Herbert to be used for housing for workers won’t solve the issue, but it will provide relief immediately.

With the same staffing problem, Saddleback Mountain in nearby Rangeley has plans to build a 100-bed ski-side hotel for employees. When the resort reopened in 2020 following five years of hiatus and the shortage of housing in the region was a significant reason for it not being able to fill a third of the vacant positions, according to the 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 declared. “That is a fundamental need.”

Arctaris Impact Fund, the investment company which owns the mountain, would like Saddleback House to be the Saddleback House to aid in supporting the local workforce throughout the four seasons, not only for its own business.

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

HOUSING AND LABOR CRUNCH

In the last two years, prices for homes have risen dramatically across Maine and especially in picturesque or appealing communities. According to the Maine Association of Realtors, the median cost for a house in March was around $325,000, which is up 21 per cent over the previous year. In addition, the quantity of homes available to purchase has decreased, leading to a more competitive market.

In the meantime, the hospitality industry is trying to replace its workforce, more than two decades after mass cuts to the crew were announced across the industry during the initial stages of the epidemic. The lack of employees is felt most strongly during the tourist-driven summer months. In 2019, employers working in the hospitality and leisure sector peaked in the summertime with over 89,000 employees in Maine. The previous year, the number barely touched 80,000, nearly 10 per cent less.

Some residents of Mount Desert Island started worrying about the lack of housing twenty years ago, and finding a home, particularly for the seasonal worker, has become more complex, said Marla O’Byrne. She is the director of the executive committee of the Island Housing Trust. The resultant labour shortages caused businesses to cut their hours, shut down hotel rooms, or reduce services to customers.

“Amid booming visitation, businesses are scaling back hours and services,” O’Byrne explained. “It is 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 victim to staff shortages due precisely to the lack of homes to live in. Acadia National Park hasn’t been able to recruit the 130to 150 members of staff that it requires each summer, which means it needs rangers, lifeguards, custodians, custodians and fee-takers. However, the park’s attendance has increased, with around 4 million people visiting last year.

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

The park has asked Federal officials to release up the area close to Bar Harbor so it can expand the beds to 80 that it has now to accommodate seasonal employees.

Housing is the main factor that determines whether you hire, Schneider said. If top potential candidates get interviewed, they’re provided with housing. Once they have vacated the bed hiring staff becomes more difficult.

If someone does not have family near, they can either live in their RV or trailer or cobble together an accommodation. It can be challenging to be a park worker, according to him.

“We will tell a candidate, ‘We don’t have housing for you,’ ” Schneider explained. “That’s when we go through the endless list of applicants since there is no way to work without housing.

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