Out of Service
It's probably the most visited spot in Dock Square. The line of summer tourists waiting to visit it can run around the block on a warm summer day, the most anxious hopping from foot to foot, attempting to move the line forward by sheer willpower. It's the same in Wiscasset, where the queue on the municipal wharf sometimes rivals the one at the neighboring Red's Eats lobster shack. From Long Sands Beach in York to Monhegan and all the way Down East beyond the hills of Acadia, more people on the coast of Maine seem to be lining up each summer to do the same thing: go to the bathroom. The problem is a growing shortage of public restrooms - and a refusal by some Maine communities to admit they are doing a disservice to their visitors.
"Kennebunkport boasts itself as being the world's finest resort community, and almost half the people who visit the southern Maine coast have it on their itinerary," says Dick Leeman, executive director of the Kennebunk/Kennebunkport Chamber of Commerce. "Many of the people who come here arrive on a motor coach. They've been on a bus for at least an hour, and when they get here they need to use the facilities." To meet this onslaught, the town offers just four public toilets: three in Dock Square and one at the chamber headquarters, across the bridge in Kennebunk's Lower Village. And were it not for $30,000 the chamber received through a special election last November, Leeman says, even these limited facilities would be in jeopardy.
Farther up Route 1 in Wiscasset, the situation is even worse. Here, where the gridlock can stretch for miles as vacationers stop to visit the community that unabashedly bills itself as "The Prettiest Village in Maine," the lines have formed early at the two porta-potties the town set up in recent years on the municipal wharf. The facilities are primitive, certainly, but they're all that have been available for those whose urgent needs can't handle the 350-yard trek to the town's other public restrooms, tucked away beside the yacht club down Water Street. But this winter the town selectmen, trying to rein in rising property taxes after the closing of power plant and uber-taxpayer Maine Yankee in 1997, decided to eliminate a $1,500 line item for the porta-potties in an effort to balance the town's already lean budget, despite being told that the wharf needed more restrooms, not fewer.
"I've heard concern that the town is not doing what it should, but by the same token the entire municipal budget is looking at every nickel and dime," maintains Don Alexander, Wiscasset's economic development director. "The pressure is on to save every penny that we can to prevent increased residential taxes." At last report a group of local businesses were trying to gather the money needed to fund the restrooms this summer "the old-fashioned way" - by collecting the money from the businesses themselves, Alexander says.
Even out on Peaks Island in Casco Bay, a destination that sees far fewer tourists than hot spots like Ogunquit, Kennebunkport, and Boothbay Harbor, a 2002 community survey revealed a need for more public restrooms. According to Tom Fortier, the island's administrator, many day-trippers from Portland were unable to find the island's two public toilets located at the community center, putting a strain on the local businesses that were often asked for access to their facilities.
Of course, you're hardly at a total loss when the call of nature beckons in Maine. Most businesses will open their restrooms to customers - McDonalds and Burger King seem to be increasingly popular for such potty breaks, although you'll be hard-pressed to find such fast-food joints in upscale resort communities such as York, Camden, and Bar Harbor. And in more remote locations, some people still find discreet shrubbery helpful for answering when nature calls.
But as anyone who has ever had an immediate need for a real restroom can attest, location is everything. In Rockland, for example, a group of downtown merchants has been pushing the city for years to build a permanent public restroom in the downtown shopping district, rather than relying on the public restrooms at the public landing on the south side of town. "If you have a customer in the middle of town who needs to use the bathroom, are you going to tell them to walk the three or four blocks down to the public landing?" asks businesswoman Susan Schiro. "People don't seem to want to admit that Rockland is turning into a tourist town, and we have to supply the facilities that people need."
Even the legislature recently took notice of the scarcity of public restrooms in Maine. "We want Maine to be a tourist state, but we really don't provide many facilities for people," says Representative Robert Duplessie, the Westbrook Democrat who sponsored a bill in the legislature this year to force some businesses to open their restrooms to the public. (The bill, opposed by the Maine Tourism Association, gas stations, and the retail industry, never even made it out of committee.) "I've gotten e-mails from people in Rhode Island and Connecticut," Duplessie adds, "and they're all saying that Maine is advertising itself as a tourist state, and yet is not providing services for them."
The cause of the restroom shortage in Maine is less one of sheer numbers - visitation to the state has been relatively flat, at about 44 million people per year, since 2000 - but rather one of changing demographics and travel styles. With the advent of the Internet as a travel tool, and particularly since 9/11, more New England travelers (57 percent of Maine's overnight visitors come from the greater New England area, according to the Maine Office of Tourism) are making spur-of-the-moment decisions. They are increasingly using weather forecasts and Web sites to adjust their itineraries almost day-by-day - a shift that has made public restrooms more vital than ever.
"The nature of the trip has changed," explains Kennebunkport's Leeman. "A decade ago there were fewer day-trippers and more overnight visitors, and those people arrived with a reservation, and therefore they could go to their room and take care of business there." In addition, Leeman says the average age of Maine tourists has increased, and these older travelers tend to use restrooms more frequently than do younger people. "Put all that together and there's more pressure on host communities to provide these facilities," he says.
But that pressure is being met with resistance in more than a few coastal communities. In York, a proposal last year to renovate the often-busy bathrooms at Long Sands beach was scaled back by the selectmen, fearing the already highly taxed residents would not support it. "In any tourist town it's a double-edged sword," says York's acting Town Manager Elizabeth McCann. "We want the tourists, but we don't want them to cost us anything." In Bar Harbor, where twenty-two toilets spread across three locations serve more than two million visitors each summer, attempts to put a public restroom in Barker Park were dropped after consistent opposition from a neighbor, according to Town Manager Dana Reed. Even tiny Damariscotta, the midcoast hamlet that sees only a fraction of the traffic headed to nearby Boothbay Harbor, is wrestling with how to upgrade from the two porta-potties it offers the more than 10,000 visitors that pass through town each day.
While the shortage of public restrooms is particularly noticeable in Maine's resort communities, the state is hardly alone in its struggles to find more places for people to answer the call of nature. "I think there's sort of a Puritan shame that is prevalent in this country that pushes public restrooms to the periphery," explains Steven Soifer, a founding member of the North American Restroom Association, a public restroom advocacy group. "There are very few facilities being built with the public, and tourists in particular, in mind. Most are built in malls or in metro stops, and visitors have a very difficult time."
But creative solutions to the public restroom shortage are beginning to appear in communities from Kittery to Calais. In ultra-exclusive York Harbor, for example, the problem of how to place a restroom at Harbor Beach north of the Stageneck Inn was solved when a landowner deeded a piece of property to the town, even going so far as to create a nonprofit foundation that coordinated the bathroom's design and construction. With landscaping and stonework rivaling that of many fine Maine homes, the public restroom that opened at Harbor Beach last summer may well be one of the finest in the state.
Other, perhaps less extravagant options have emerged elsewhere along the coast. In Bar Harbor, for example, the renovation this spring of the town's celebrated Agamont Park, with its stunning view of Frenchman's Bay, included a land swap and utility lines for ten new public toilets on an adjacent property, although when these restrooms will be built has not been determined. On Peaks Island, a new $50,000 unisex bathroom opened this summer in an easily accessible spot near the ferry terminal, two years after island merchants petitioned the city of Portland for it. And at Goose Rocks Beach in Kennebunkport, where poor water-quality tests showed an undeniable need for public restrooms, three porta-potties installed this summer ensure that the Maine coast maintains its clean, clear reputation.
"Anytime you're going to attract large amounts of people to an area I think you have a responsibility as a public agency to say, 'Hey, where are they going to go pee?' " says Michael Sullivan, parks and recreation director in York. "Because if you don't know where they're going, then you're going to have a real problem."
A long-term, statewide solution for the public restroom shortage will require a major shift in the mindset of tourism officials, local businesses, and every Maine resident, according to Kennebunkport's Leeman. "We have to, as a state and as a population, look at our amenities and find a way to fund them," he says. "There are communities that are trying to encourage tourism, and they're living on a shoestring budget. We need to figure out how to include infrastructure - and that even goes beyond just the need for toilets - as part of our tourism efforts."
Until that day comes, however, more than a few Maine visitors will be left hopping anxiously in line.