In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Economic History of Main Street, Northeast Harbor

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21st Century Decline

In 2008, a fire erupted in the Colonial’s restaurant on Main Street and spread to the Wingspread Gallery and the Joy Building, on either side of the restaurant. Although the restaurant has been rebuilt, as of 2013, there are still empty lots on Main Street as a result of the fire. On January 23, 2009, the Tan Turtle Tavern burned to the ground, leaving Northeast Harbor with one less business in an already dwindling business district.

In the 21st century, these trends have been exacerbated. In 2000, the overall town valuation was $2 billion. Northeast Harbor has been called “one of the richest villages in America” and yet, its year-round population and business options continue to decline. In 2011, there were approximately 350 year round residents, down from a high of 900 residents.

The types of business in the village of Northeast Harbor slowly have shifted from trades and professional business to retail and hospitality. Parker Brown’s 2012 study of businesses in Northeast Harbor clearly shows this trend. In 1899, 42% of the businesses in Northeast Harbor were trade-based and 9% were hospitality-focused. In 1910, 40% of businesses in the village are trades and hospitality-focused businesses have grown to 10%. By 1933, only 21% of businesses in Northeast Harbor are trades and hospitality accounts for 11%. This trend continued slowly until 2010 when 21% of the villages businesses are trades-based and 23% are hospitality-focused.

At the same time, the overall number of business in the village peaked in the mid-1980s, then fell dramatically. In 1899, there were about 67 businesses in town. In 1910, there were about 80. By 1980, there were 90 businesses in the village but in 2010, this number has fallen to just under 50.

The Future

That Northeast Harbor is in economic decline, there is no doubt. The question is how far will it fall? Will Northeast Harbor go the way of other island villages, like Somesville, with only an art gallery and a convenience store? Or will it descend to resemble the ghost villages of Sound and Center – once thriving island villages that have no commercial businesses at all? Perhaps we should accept that the automobile and online commerce have supplanted the old model of the village center, and that the island is now one big village with people commuting via automobile to Bar Harbor and Ellsworth or via the internet to New York or Beijing.

Sources Used

Down Memory Lane by Emily Phillips Reynolds
Mount Desert: A History by George E. Street
Northeast Harbor: Reminiscences by An Old Summer Resident