A variety of Maine-based events and institutions are as fraught with cholesterol almost as much as they are replete with character.

It was the last Saturday in July l962, the grand opening of the first Dunkin’ Donuts in Maine. The city manager of our state’s largest city, Portland’s Graham Watt, did the honors, wielding a giant pair of scissors that seared through a huge banner for the ribbon cutting ceremony. The community consensus of the day thus celebrated the arrival of this new franchise to Maine, one now so ubiquitous that it has become the chain with the largest numbers of retail food outlets in our state. Whether it be Center Street in Auburn, Route 302 in Windham or Forest Avenue in Portland, its sugar frosted and orange images are impossible to elude.

The l962 opening of Maine’s first Dunkin’ Donuts ushered in our present franchising era in the state. The advent of the two car family, not to mention cheap prices for the once-rationed commodity of gas, spurred development of a drive-thru culture on which such chains thrived. It would also be one in which Dunkin’ Donuts would not stand alone.

Its debut was soon followed by the expansion to Maine of other fast food multi-nationals that have become familiar trademarks of life here in our state. Thus, l963 witnessed the first Maine McDonald’s at Portland’s St. John Street; there are now 119 of them here. 1968 ushered in the state’s first Burger King at Portland’s Allen Avenue. We now have 120 of those. The first of our state’s l2l Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets and our 22 Wendy’s came here in the decade that followed.

Recent speculation that another Dunkin’ Donuts may open only a half mile from Maine’s first one has provoked a reaction far different than the red carpet treatment that greeted our first. If it ever opens it’s unlikely the ceremonial head of the state’s largest city – which since l970 has been the mayor rather than the city manager – will show up at the ribbon cutting for this one. That’s because more than 200 residents in the city’s Deering Center neighborhood have recently signed a petition protesting the possible location of the franchise in their midst. They have cited concerns about traffic, health of students at nearby Deering High School, and the threat to the aesthetics of a neighborhood that mixes residential with small Mom and Pop specialty stores.

Petition leader Melissa Pritchard observed “there is a character here that we want to keep.”

Thus, Dunkin Donuts, like myriad other franchises, is seen by many not as a beacon of progress but as a symbol of commercial homogenization and a purveyor of unhealthy eating habits. In a culture that first demonstrated its independence from an overseas monarchy by becoming a nation of coffee drinkers – so it would not have to pay a tax on tea – some in our own era are expressing their individuality by protesting one of the world’s largest sponsors of the very same product that was once the mainstay of our region’s tea dumping revolutionaries.

The recent Deering Center protest, however, is also about context and community and not just coffee, a product that all Mainers will no doubt continue to consume. The Route One’s, 302’s and Center Streets of Maine will continue to accommodate such symbols of nationalization just as they will remain popular with vast numbers of our people. But many will want them to remain “there” but not arrive “here.”

Though Deering Center is part of our state’s largest city, it is nevertheless a distinct community with an identity that parallels that of some of our smaller towns. It’s is a place where schools, churches, the barber shop, meat market and clothes alteration establishments are all within close walking distance to where most of their patrons – who often greet each other on the street by their first names – also live. It is thus, in effect, a small town within a city.

The city ordinances of Portland like that of other major Maine cities and towns do not have outright bans on franchises and it’s thus unlikely that in a place like Deering Center, where retailing of some sort has ordinarily been allowed, that Dunkin’ Donuts can be kept out if it chooses to locate there. Indeed no city or town in Maine seems to have an outright prohibition on all chains or franchises even though such laws have been enacted in Nantucket, Mass., and Bristol, R.I

Even if it is not successful, the Deering Center protest is symptomatic of a resurgent activism that has also recently witnessed ballot measures in seven other Maine communities that are a referendum on another and bigger form of out -of-state retailers, namely the big box supercenters. Such measures have met with mixed results – passing in some towns but failing in others – thus demonstrating our state’s continued ambivalence and division.

We’re also reminded, however, that out-of-state franchises and chain stores in our midst are by no means novel even if the size and influence of them may have increased. It has indeed been some 90 years since F.W. Woolworth came to Portland and almost that long since J.J. Newberry’s showed up on the Main Streets of some of our smaller communities.

Moreover, the saturated fat cuisine of which the Deering Center movement complains is by no means the exclusive prerogative of outside influences. Some of our local nonprofits are proud sponsors of “all you can eat” hunters’ breakfasts featuring ever popular but highly cholesterolized home fries, sausage, and bacon. Hot dogs, onion rings and grease-drenched pizzas are the centerpiece of menus at our most popular local diners and restaurants, not to mention the midways of our county fairs. Such Maine-based events and institutions are as fraught with cholesterol almost as much as they are replete with character. We are thus a state that seems somewhat in a battle with itself and not without our own share of contradictions and indigenous shortcomings.

Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of Maine’s political scene. He can be reached by e-mail: [email protected]

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