Melvin Robbins, the friendly, creative businessman whose passion and innovation turned the Poland Spring Inn from decaying hotel to a thriving resort, has died.

He was 80 years old and had Alzheimer’s disease.

“Mel came here with a dream to turn this place around, and he did it. He did it nicely,” said his wife, Cyndi.

Robbins was born in Boston in 1927 and began working at 14 as a soda jerk. Bored with formal education, he dropped out of high school and began teaching himself through books, through apprenticeships, through experience. As a young man, he held myriad jobs, including credit manager and furniture salesman. But it was his work as a New England land developer that brought him to Poland Spring.

It was 1972, and Robbins had planned to demolish the property’s run-down hotels and sell off the land for development. Instead, he stayed, enamored with the history of the centuries-old resort. Armed with $7,000 – his life savings – he was determined to bring it back to its glory days.

“He just fell in love with the place,” his wife said.

The first year, he ran the inn like a regular hotel. And he lost most of his money because of it.

The next year, he decided it was time for a change.

“He literally created a unique type of hotel-keeping,” said Robbins’ longtime friend, Irving Isaacson.

Robbins cut out the extras – in-room telephones, color TVs, bellhops – and paid more attention to service, friendliness and affordability. He fixed up the property’s tattered golf course, turning it into an award-winner. He offered unique deals, including memberships and ultra low-priced vacation packages.

The inn was soon popular with New Englanders who wanted a comfortable, enjoyable place to vacation without breaking the bank.

“Once they came once, they ended up coming forever,” said Michael S. Bartley, a Poland Spring Inn club member since 1975.

The inn became popular because of the changes. It stayed popular because of Robbins.

“He could strike up a conversation with absolutely anybody,” said Sue Jones, a resort employee for 20 years. “He would sit in his chair in the main inn lobby and people just loved to sit and they would chat with him for such a long time.”

Robbins, who’d found his passion in caring for the Poland Spring Inn, liked to help others indulge passions of their own.

He bought his wife art lessons and “all the paint anybody could ask for,” she said, because he knew she liked to paint. He started a summer theater group at the resort because he knew his front desk manager loved the theater.

“He would try to figure out what you might be good at and put you into that job or get you set up into that job,” said Liz Dickey, who’s worked for the resort for 25 years.

Outside the resort, Robbins was just as magnanimous. He offered to give Poland 200 acres of land when the town was considering a new school. He held annual fundraisers to help support local fire and rescue crews. He wrote books about the history of the inn and the area to ensure that history was never lost.

Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Robbins gradually retired from public life and the resort over the last few years, leaving the inn in the care of his wife.

Last summer, Bartley said, Robbins returned to the inn to have dinner. In the dining room, he received a standing ovation.

“The whole place was on its feet,” Bartley said. “That’s how he was loved and thought of.”

Robbins’ funeral will be held at the Robbins Family Cemetery at the resort at 2 p.m. today. In lieu of flowers, the family has said, donations may be made to Poland Fire and Rescue or the Poland Spring Preservation Society.

The inn, recently renamed Poland Spring Resort, will continue to be run by his wife.

“It’s special,” she said.

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