Part two: This small town’s many second-home owners are an economic and community tour de force.

Editor’s note: This is second in a three-part series on one town’s experience with tourism, the state’s largest industry. In Part 1 on May 25, we looked at getting ready for the start of the busiest season, summer. Part 3 will check in on the town at season’s end in late September.

They met in the Air Force and for 25 years talked about owning a cabin on a lake in the woods. Three years ago, Robyne Bachelor and her husband, both from Groton, Mass., bought a piece of Rangeley, a cabin on Oquossoc Cove where biplanes sometimes land in the yard.

Loading the back of her SUV in the IGA parking lot, the only grocery store for miles, Bachelor said she could see spending at least half the year up here as her husband approaches retirement. The couple belong to the snowmobile club, enjoy summer festivals, shop, pay taxes. Lured by the people and scenery, the Bachelors are part of the reason this rural Maine town’s population grows four-fold in the summer.

There’s evidence of that outside influence all over.

At the public library, almost twice as many library cards have been issued to non-residents as to residents. Seasonal visitors telecommute on the library’s patio, a popular Wi-Fi spot. The IGA hires workers from Bulgaria to handle the crowd of extra customers.

A Connecticut boy who was badly burned when the propane grill at his hot dog stand backfired offered up half his hot dog money toward the town’s new $2.1 million rehab center and kicked off that campaign. Most of the modern facility, with a day care and gym, was funded by people who don’t live here year-round.

The man leading the effort for a new million-dollar sports heritage museum – he also heads the local 500-member sportsmen’s association and the historical society – hails from Cape Cod and winters in Florida.

“I think a lot of people, whether they have money or don’t, they can come up here and be themselves,” said Beth Brunswick. The New York woman’s family has summered in Rangeley since 1917.

Rangeley would be a markedly different place without the second-home owner. By the state’s way of counting, they’re tourists. Tourists that, in this case, make up a whopping 60 to 70 percent of the tax base.

Million dollar homes, views

The state’s largest industry dominates here. While across Maine, tourism supports about one in every five jobs, in Rangeley it’s closer to four in every five. Summer is the busiest season, followed by winter.

While there’s no clear way to compare the density of second-home ownership across the state, David Ledew of Maine Revenue Services’ property tax division said insight can be drawn from the number of properties claimed as a primary residence.

In Rangeley, 13 percent, or 300, of all the properties in town, are a primary residence. In Bar Harbor, another tourism hotbed, it’s 28 percent – suggesting that for its size, Rangeley might have significantly more non-resident homeowners than Bar Harbor.

The town’s been growing at a steady clip, more than doubling its valuation since 2003, according to Town Manager Perry Ellsworth.

“We’re averaging 40-plus building starts a year. Most are from away, building vacation or retirement homes,” he said. “We had our first million-dollar sale three years ago.” now lists 11 homes for sale at $1 million or more.

Having as much as 70 percent of the tax base picked up by second-home owners – a huge population that’s not sending kids to school – isn’t all local gravy. Ellsworth said Rangeley’s municipal budget is three times that of a lot of towns its size. The town employs a full-time fire chief, full-time code enforcement officer, a police department.

“These people from away (expect) these types of services,” he said.

Not a lot of 1,100-person towns offer that much. Nor do many boast a health center or a rehabilitation pavilion with a sweeping view of miles of pristine lakes. Before the Rangeley Region Health Center opened in 1994, Rangeley was served by a rotation of private-practice doctors.

“They’d work for a little while, get burned out and leave,” said Clare Webber, project coordinator at Rangeley Region Health and Wellness, the nonprofit agency that raised money for and oversees both buildings.

“The majority of our funds come from our seasonal residents,” Webber said. “We wouldn’t have been able to do it without them, for sure.”

In addition to offering health screenings, lab work and X-rays, on its Web site the center lists bee stings and misplaced fish hooks under the variety of treated ailments.

Summer loving

Webber grew up in Washington, D.C.

“I’m one of those that spent every summer of my life here,” she said. Still, when she announced at age 21 that she planned to move here, “My friends all looked at me, ‘That’s where people go to retire.'”

But she loved it. Still does. At first she worked for a local attorney. She married a local man.

Another transplant, Don Palmer, who is leading the fundraising charge for the new sports heritage museum, worked for Gillette for 26 years and lived in Cape Cod. He spent five or six days a week in the office and didn’t get involved in community activities back then. But he’d already fallen for the fishing in Rangeley, and 20 years ago, about the time he had a chance at an early retirement, he and his wife made the move, at least for the summers.

He said he enjoys “the remoteness of the area, the beauty of the area, the wildlife. Other people are drawn to this area for the same reason, so you have a lot in common with people.”

Palmer’s noticed people bring all sorts of talents to Rangeley, like the architect donating services to the museum project. “Oftentimes, you don’t know their background, what they did or do in their other career.”

Brunswick thinks Rangeley became more popular with second-home owners after Sept. 11.

“I think people got spooked. This is a safe haven. This is a place in the middle of nowhere,” she said.

Her great aunt, Elizabeth Morris, known around town for decades as Auntie Liz, is a noted fisherwoman who’s going to be in the sporting museum. Brunswick’s cousin, Thom Gimbel, the sax player in the rock band Foreigner, like her, summered here as a kid. His band did a concert last year that raised more than $30,000 for the health center.

“A lot of (people) give back to a lot of nonprofits,” she said. “It’s in your blood. There’s something about this special, secret northern place to come to.”

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