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September 1, 2006

The Long View: Summah People - Some Ahrn't

by Philip Conkling

There are probably more jokes about summer people circulating through Maine island and working waterfront communities than blonde jokes or light bulb jokes or even redneck jokes. We all love to tell stories on summer people ("Oh, look at how all the fishermen in the harbor parked their boats facing in the same direction"...) The sly humor in these jokes and stories reinforces the moral superiority of those of us whose families have the distinction of long histories (and memories) here, or who have consciously chosen the privations of year round living in cold and economically stressed conditions.

These amusements have almost evolved into various folk idioms as we parse the status accorded to various sub-populations -- "fish hawks" are natives returning to their home communities to enjoy the summer. "Year round summer people" are transplants who have decided to live and raise their children in the communities where their parents and/or grandparents summered.

Still, after the self-congratulatory smiles recede, the question remains, are summer people a blessing or a curse? Or neither? Or both?

My answer is both.

On the negative side, summer people moving to coastal and island communities unquestionably skew local economies by vastly increasing the prices of waterfront property and pushing up shorefront taxes for those few Mainers still fortunate enough to own waterfront land. Island and coastal community housing becomes increasingly scarce, because summer people are almost always more willing and able to out-compete new, young home buyers, even for the quaint cape on a back road far from the harbor or shore. A fisherman who sells a wharf and shorefront cottage is more likely to afford a decent retirement by negotiating with someone from away than by selling to another fisherman. Thus, access to the waterfront becomes increasingly scarce for commercial fishermen and boatbuilders. Affordable community housing and working waterfront access are key challenges that the peculiar economics of island and working waterfront communities must work hard to address.

But there are positive sides to summer people that we usually ignore. Of course, they bring wallets and checkbooks drawn on larger incomes from away. But the far more important and overlooked fact is that summer people get attached to the communities where they live seasonally. As they get older (and wealthier), they stay longer. They winterize their homes; they come for Thanksgiving and Christmas. They frequent our local libraries (and support their annual funds), they attend community theater events, and in the process they get more committed to their adopted communities. Then when many of them retire (often early) to those same communities, we ignore them. After all, they are from away.

But we ignore the potential of this group of deeply committed, year-round summer people at our peril. They are almost always highly educated; both in the broad sense of being worldly wise, and in the narrow sense of having watched local politics play out from a distance for upwards of an adult lifetime. Our worst fear is that if we give these people half a chance to get involved in the real dynamics of community life, they will try to change things to look like the places they just left in order to avoid.

This seems to me to be an irrational fear. Few people come to Maine for the long dark winter or to take over from local folks. They come, instead, because they are attracted to places where people are still "real." Where you can have a respectful, often amusing, always interesting conversation with your car mechanic, plumber, carpenter or lobsterman. Where life revolves around school plays, community musicals, hymns by the choir, potluck suppers. They come, in short, to be part of the pulse and pace of small town community life. And they bring energy, professional talent, resources and connections.

Maine currently has the oldest population of any state in the country. This fact is not only because young people continue to leave Maine for better job opportunities elsewhere (fewer than used to, but still a sadness), but because the boomers are beginning to retire in record numbers and are attracted to the kinds of small town America that were prevalent half a century ago, but have been mostly swallowed up in suburban sprawl where you don't know your neighbors or their kids, and where the corner store long ago became a discount chain outlet.

We ought to figure out how to harness this large pocket of potential human energy and apply it to the problems coastal and island communities face -- including the problems of affordable community housing and working waterfront access they helped to create. In the process, I bet we will find library volunteers, technology consultants, business development specialists, fund raisers, great substitute teachers and even, now and again, a new community leader or two. q

Philip Conkling is president of the Island Institute.

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