Floods create worry about tourist season


YORK – First came the rains. Then came the calls from tourists wanting to know if they should still plan on coming to Maine.

As last week’s downpours turned into some of the worst floods in New England since the 1930s, the world was shown images from southern Maine of washed-out roads, buckled bridges and people canoeing down roads that had turned into rivers.

Businesses are now scrambling to get out the word that they’ll be ready for customers by Memorial Day weekend, the unofficial start to Maine’s tourist season.

The Union Bluff Hotel, in York Beach, heard from a tour company that was arriving this week with a busload of tourists from Minnesota. The company wanted to know: Is the hotel open? Will the attractions along southern Maine’s coast be operating?

Hotel owner Brent Merritt wasn’t surprised to get the call – not after the flooding appeared nationwide in newspapers, on TV and on the Internet. After the waters soaked the ground floor of his business, Merritt shut down his restaurant and bar for five days; but the 63 hotel rooms in the upper floors and annex didn’t close.

“It was on all the national news,” said Merritt, who assured the tour company that it didn’t have to reschedule. “Everyone started calling and making sure everything was all right.”

Lots of people also want to see how they can help in the aftermath of the floods, said Nancy Davison, an artist and owner of BlueStocking Studio, down the street from the Union Bluff Hotel. She tells them to come visit and buy lunch, an ice cream cone or maybe a piece of art.

“Everybody thinks you’re doomed,” she said. “They think it’s like New Orleans.”

Maine’s travel and tourism industry provides work for more than 176,000 people and generates about $6.2 billion a year in spending, making it the state’s biggest industry.

The southern coast, from Kittery to Old Orchard Beach, is the No. 1 tourism region of the state, accounting for nearly 20 million visitor trips a year. The region is a tourist draw with its mix of rocky coastline and sand beaches, luxury resorts and downscale beachside villages.

York Beach was hit as hard as any place in Maine by the torrential rains, which dumped more than a foot on areas of York County over several days. The nearby Cape Neddick area of York received more than 15 inches of rain, according to the National Weather Service.

After the rains stopped, businesses in York Beach were ripping out carpets, running fans and dehumidifiers to dry out the dampness, and calling vendors to place orders for supplies. “Closed” signs hung on the doors of T-shirt shops, restaurants and other storefronts.

Besides having to clean up the mess, businesses are left with the task of assuring visitors that they’ll be open.

Even before the rains stopped falling, some people were canceling reservations because they thought businesses were closed, or that they couldn’t get there because of washed-out roads, said Cathy Goodwin, president of The Greater York Region Chamber of Commerce.

With a tourist season that lasts just a few months, local businesses can hardly afford to lose dollars because of a few raindrops, she said.

Besides organizing volunteers to help with the cleanup last week, the chamber also made signs reading, “York Beach is Open!”

“We’ve had floods before. We’re a resilient people,” Goodwin said. “This is their bread and butter. They’re going to reopen.”

At the York Beach Fish Market, Frank Robbins said all the York Beach businesses are planning to be open by Memorial Day weekend. While business owners are concerned that the flooding could hurt the beginning of the tourist season, he’s optimistic.

“I think people will come – if just out of curiosity,” he said.

The Cliff House, a 194-room oceanside resort in Ogunquit, also got calls from visitors asking if they could still drive to the hotel after the rains had washed out local roads. One road to the hotel was washed out, but an alternative route was open.

Kathryn Weare, owner and manager of The Cliff House, said the businesses that were forced to shut down in York Beach will make out after they reopen. She expects some people will pay a visit simply to see how the beachside community is faring.

“I can’t think of any better medicine for those businesses,” she said, “than to have tourists come through their doors.”

AP-ES-05-20-06 1054EDT