Part one: Getting ready. Those floppy plush moose don’t order themselves.

Editor’s note: In a three-part series beginning today, we look at one town’s experience with tourism. In Part 2, in July, we will look at the second-homeowner phenomenon: The large impact made by visitors who look around and decide to stay awhile. Part 3 will check in on the town at season’s end.

No Wal-Mart for 30 miles, no Starbucks for 75, and that’s part of the draw, along with the miles of lakes, postcard views and extra-Maine touches. The Black Fly Festival may have gone by the wayside, but there’s still a Little Miss Woodchip contest.

Soon enough, people from away will outnumber locals here four to one. The biggest grocery store in town gets so busy, it hires Bulgarians.

Every year, people drive for hours and spend millions on second homes, boat rentals, guide services, lobster dinners and floppy plush moose.

Rangeley is a remote epicenter of Maine’s biggest business: tourism. Statewide, overnight visitors and daytrippers supported 140,000 jobs and recorded $10 billion in sales at last count. Up here, about eight in every 10 jobs depends on the industry.

Summer is the height and Memorial Day weekend the unofficial start of the tourist season.

Matt McGuire’s ready. He’s worked nearly nonstop since the second week of April, when it took four days to snowplow a path from the main road to the maintenance garage at Rangeley Lake State Park. The new park manager has cut brush so workers can leaf-blow trails, repaired docks and reconnected showers (another four-day project). He has 12 cases of toilet paper at the ready.

He’s been told spring is fishermen, summer is families and fall is leaf and moose peepers. So far camp reservations are strong, with bookings for four, five and six days.

“I have yet to see an out-of-state plate,” said McGuire last week. “Memorial Day will be a big test.”

At Video Habits, the only video rental stop in town, Chris Perkins’ plan included dusting and planting flowers near the sign that says “Visitors welcome.” Only in town for one night? No problem, she trusts you.

“I look forward to them every year. Really,” she said. “It’s what keeps me going.”

To do: windows, Web

The region’s busiest months are July, August, and then February, according to Evelyn McAllister, executive director at the Rangeley Lakes Chamber of Commerce. The population will jump from around 1,700 to 8,000 some weekends, she said.

Fifty percent of guests come from other parts of Maine. The next biggest source is eastern Massachusetts.

While the winter hops with long-weekend skiers and snowmobilers, in the summer most bookings are for the week. McAllister said a lot of inns and bed-and-breakfasts require Saturday-to-Saturday plans.

Rob Welch at Pleasant Street Inn Bed & Breakfast, a renovated home with five guest rooms, started his to-do list back in February.

Upgrade Web site. Shift advertising. Clean windows. Wash carpets. Keep an eye out for linens.

“We have guests that just love our towels,” Welch said. “(But) towel companies change their type of towels all the time” – a problem only someone who goes through as many as an innkeeper would notice.

Welch, a Rangeley selectman and retired principal, gets guests from all over: Florida, New York, England, Tasmania.

“I get a little frustrated when I hear about locals complaining about too many tourists. We can’t have enough tourists,” he said.

Like many, Welch is a little worried gas prices may keep some away, “but loyalty gets people here. It is a magnificent place.”

Maine Director of Tourism Pat Eltman, at an industry conference this week, said it’s the state’s job to get people here for the first time, the regions’ job to keep them coming back. To that end, Maine’s been to six travel shows this year, hitting Chicago and Los Angeles for the first time.

Last year, the state spent $500,000 upgrading its Web site, Eltman said, making it more user-friendly and adding three features: A lighthouse tour, culinary highlights and best-known fishing spots (Rangeley’s in that).

The top experience for visitors once here, according to Office of Tourism data? Enjoying small towns and villages – more popular than hitting the beach or buttering up a lobster.

With a community calendar that boasts chicken barbecues, a doggie garden party and a Logging Museum biscuit bake – followed by the crowning of Little Miss Woodchip – Rangeley embodies that small-town charm.

Charcoal, moose, wine

Maine as a whole attracts tourists with higher-than-average incomes, and this area is no exception. Big-city tastes are evident on the IGA shelves, where $53.99 bottles of Joseph Phelps cabernet sauvignon are for sale next to 18-packs of Bud Light.

The store stocks up on charcoal and grills, and keeps a good selection of chips and buns, produce manager David Durrell said. Also due are several 50-lobster deliveries each week out of Belfast.

The IGA employs three times as many people in the summer as the rest of the year to handle the coming crowds. Because there aren’t enough locals to hire, five Bulgarians are due in June, he said.

Memorial Day marks the 15th anniversary for Linda Dexter’s store, Ecopelagicon. A week ago Friday, with a new batch of plastic-wrapped kayaks just delivered in the parking lot, Lori Rodgers was rearranging shelves to give them a little pop.

“I’m the neatnik, ‘OK, this is what we have to do,'” said Rodgers. “I’m trying to talk (Linda) into painting the shelves. It took me seven years to get her to paint the wall green over there.”

Dexter was still receiving stock ordered at trade shows in March and April. Visitors want something to remember the area by, she said, and they want a souvenir for the people who’ve fed the cat while they’re away.

“Gifts that speak Rangeley or Maine in general are definitely the most popular,” she said.

If it has a moose or a loon, it’s a winner.

Jim Jannace, president of the local chamber and the owner of two shops, said he’ll do two-thirds of his business from Memorial Day to Columbus Day.

Part of getting ready for tourists, for many locals, involved taking some of the last two months off to recoup after a busy winter, making the start of the season all the more striking.

“In April or May, you could lay down on Main Street and not worry about getting run over,” Jannace said. “A month later, it’s wall to wall.”


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