North by East
The Price of Gas
Are rising fuel costs actually a boon for Maine tourism?
It's become conventional wisdom that last year's high gas prices put a serious damper on Maine tourism. Retailers and innkeepers from Mount Desert Island to the hills of Bethel blamed the price spike after Hurricane Katrina for what they said was a lackluster fall in Maine's largest industry. But that got us thinking: if you're already planning a vacation, how much does an increase in gas prices really add to the cost of your trip?
So we did a few back-of-the-envelope calculations using a hypothetical family from New Jersey who plans to drive to Maine and back in a vehicle that gets twenty miles to the gallon. The round-trip drive plus some incidental driving along the way comes out to about1,200 miles (or sixty gallons). Even if gas shoots up fifty cents a gallon, we're only talking about a $30 increase in the cost of your well-deserved week away. You'll drop that much on a couple of lobster rolls at Harraseeket Lunch & Lobster.
So, we had to wonder, why would the normally rational folks who have the good sense to come to Maine every summer let thirty bucks keep them away?
As it turns out, they don't. At least not according to Mark Anderson, senior instructor of resource economics and policy at the University of Maine. "I don't think it changes consumer behavior at all," Anderson says. "And in the last AAA survey I saw, with the higher gas prices people expressed no intention to change their travel plans."
In fact, Anderson says high gas prices could actually be good for Maine tourism, since a resident of southern New England or the mid-Atlantic region might find a drive to Maine that much more cost-effective than a flight to Europe, the theory being that the cost of fuel makes up a much larger portion of a trip by airplane than it does a trip by car.
If that's the case, why do we hear so much griping from the tourism industry about the high cost of gas? Anderson thinks he's got an idea: "If you've had a bad year, it's easier to blame it on gas prices than on the fact that your marketing wasn't better than your competitor's."
Now there's a theory worth a second look.
A Bowdoin researcher investigates an ancient insect sport.
Hadley Horch, an assistant professor of biology and neuroscience at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, has the perfect research animal. It's small, cheap, easy to feed, musical, and grows its eardrums on its elbows. It also practices a type of warfare as formalized and predictable as a Japanese tea ceremony.
Professor Horch studies crickets.
More importantly, Horch studies how crickets can lose an ear — in this case, an elbow — and regrow its auditory nerves to link to another elbow, or ear. She also looks into how hormones affect the behavior of male crickets in their ritualistic battles for dominance.
At any one time, Horch has a couple of thousand specially bred Mediterranean crickets living in a closet in her research laboratory, where they breed, eat cat kibble, and offer insights that may someday have applications for mammals, including humans. "No one has really done anything in this area for the past ten or fifteen years," Horch explains. "With all the new molecular research techniques that have been developed recently, this lets us look at how neurons grow and regenerate."
And if Horch can identify how an adult cricket regrows its auditory nerves, it could be a major step toward finding the same ability in mammals. "Adult nervous systems are very static," she explains. "Neurons don't normally exhibit new growth after they've been damaged."
The other aspect of Horch's research is cricket battles. For centuries the Chinese have bred and fought male crickets, often betting large amounts of money on the outcomes. The contests continue today, with the technological advantage of having video cameras in the tiny cricket arenas beaming the fights all over the country.
Horch is bringing a modern approach to the ancient sport by investigating what makes crickets behave in the extremely predictable patterns that characterize the fights. "If you put two males crickets in a box together, they fight," she explains. "It's very stereotyped, and therefore quantifiable and predictable. But if you change the hormones in the insects, you can change what happens. It's really intriguing to think about pushing them around and seeing the results." Her work could lead to insights into aggression and the role of adrenaline in perceptions of winning and losing.
Maybe she should be working for the Red Sox.
Veggie lovers mark the end of an era in Portland.
For Portland foodies, it's been a difficult winter. First there was the astonishing news that the Whole Grocer, the locally owned natural foods store on Marginal Way that long fought the onslaught of national chains (like its across-the-parking-lot neighbor Wild Oats), had been sold to Whole Foods Market, Inc. The Texas company plans to operate from the Whole Grocer while it builds its first Maine store — reportedly complete with a saltwater taffy pulling machine and a "New England fish fry" — around the corner.
As if the Whole Grocer's capitulation to the chains wasn't enough, then came the big white signs posted in the windows of the Portland Greengrocer. The last time the signs appeared, in the fall of 2004, the news wasn't good: due to logistical problems involving the loss of access to their back door, Greengrocer owners Nick and Annie Witte announced they were cutting the size of the shop in half and — the harshest blow — eliminating the produce from which their name derived. For the Wittes' downtown customer base, that meant no more lunchtime walks to grab a leafy — and well-priced — bunch of cilantro for that night's dinner, no more mid-afternoon strolls to buy a pristine quart of locally grown blueberries, tossing the bittersweet morsels into your mouth as you wandered back to the office.
This time around, the news was worse: the Greengrocer would shut its doors permanently. Nick's sign didn't elaborate on the reason, simply noting that "after fifteen great years in retail, Annie and I have decided to close Portland Greengrocer." While the couple is excited about making a change — they haven't figured out exactly what they're going to do next, but Nick says it will involve "working with people, but in a non-food, non-retail way" — they've had to endure a funereal atmosphere in the store, as grief-stricken customers wandered in during the last weeks to say good-bye all over again. "It's been really endearing," says Annie. "Maybe because it's food, it brings a level of intimacy — you know what they're having for dinner."
With the clerks at the big grocery stores unlikely to take much interest in your paella plans, it seems Portlanders will have to find someone else to talk to about their dinner.
Grumbling on the Border
Washington solutions don't impress in northern Maine.
After several years of short-term fixes and Band-Aid approaches, the Department of Homeland Security is offering a new solution for borderland Mainers who frequently travel to Canada. The agency is proposing a crossing card that readily identifies the bearer as an innocuous Maine citizen rather than a bomb-throwing terrorist. Although a far cry from the good old days when Mainers visited friends and family in Canada with little or no official interference, the card is being presented as a compromise to a regulation that would have required every traveler to carry a passport.
It's not a compromise at all in the eyes of some Mainers. "We're very disappointed with the idea," says Daniel LaPointe, director of economic and community development in Van Buren, in the far northern tip of Maine. "We're trying to promote trade and tourism between the two countries, and what this proposal says is 'Welcome to Fortress America.' "
The department will begin issuing the new card, about the size of a driver's license and featuring a photograph, fingerprints, and other information, by the end of the year. The People Access Security Service (PASS) card "will protect the interests of people living in border communities," according to Maine Senator Susan Collins, chair of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and a native of Aroostook County.
Maine's senior senator, Olympia Snowe, called the card a "reasonable solution" to border-crossing issues. The cards will cost about $50, according to preliminary reports, half the expense of a passport but still not as cheap as pre-9/11 times, when most folks got across with just a driver's license and often not even that.
Some descriptions of the PASS card say it could include driver's license information, replacing the state-issued document and becoming a form of national identification, another idea that rankles LaPointe. "For an American to carry an official ID card is something a lot of us don't accept," he explains. "We are not happy with any of this stuff. It might make Washington folks feel safe, but it doesn't do anything for the people who live here."
LaPointe favors a return to pre-9/11 procedures, including "hiring local border agents who know everyone. If someone shows up in a Mercedes with New York plates, well, they know who to check out, don't they? These days they have people working the border from Virginia and Arizona who don't know anyone."
Unfortunately, LaPointe says, that's apparently far too sensible an idea for the federal government. On the edges of Maine, the grumbling will continue.
Witness for the Defense
A Mainer made legal history in 1864.
Oddly enough, up through the nineteenth century English common law did not allow defendants in criminal cases to testify in their own behalf. In April 1864 Maine became the first state in the country to abandon that concept, when accused murderer Samuel Richardson was allowed to testify at his trial. A plaque in the first floor hallway of the Franklin County Courthouse in Farmington commemorates the event:
At common law, a defendant in a criminal case was not permitted to testify. Maine was the first common law jurisdiction in the world to change this old rule. The first jury trial under the new statute was State vs. Richardson on an indictment for murder tried at Farmington, Franklin County, Maine, beginning April 23, 1864. On April 25, 1864, Richardson became the first person to testify in his own trial for murder.
According to Farmington attorney and historian Paul Mills, "Defendants before then were not considered competent to testify in their own behalf, presumably because of bias. It's actually still true today in some countries."
The precedent Richardson set became widespread by the start of the twentieth century. "There wasn't a lot of folderol about it," Mills says. "It just spread slowly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction."
As for Richardson, he lost his case and was sentenced to hang, although the execution was never carried out. He died in prison in 1869 as the first defendant to have his say in court, a real distinction for a dubious person.
Thy Neighbor's House
Keeping up with the Joneses (and their valuations) online.
In recent years, more and more municipalities across Maine have posted their property tax assessment databases on the Internet. By law, the records — which include a property's address, owner's name, and assessed value, as well as its ownership history, in most cases — are public information. But that doesn't mean everyone's happy about it. Windham is just the latest in a series of Maine towns that have debated the necessity — and the propriety — of posting such information where any Web browser can find it.
The latest kerfuffle began last October, when the Windham town council voted to take the town's database off the Internet due to concerns about privacy, and ended a few months back, when councilors agreed to put the database back online, with the proviso that property owners will be able to opt out of the online listings if they choose.
The whole debate strikes Andrea M. Sawyer as a bit hysterical. Sawyer is a broker at Krainin Real Estate in South Casco who's been representing properties in Windham for years. Like many real estate brokers, Sawyer uses the online databases to perform market analyses for clients and, occasionally, to help a residential property owner fight a revaluation. "Sometimes," she says, "I have to teach people that, yes, the value of your property is literally $780,000 and this is why your tax assessment is so-and-so; I'm sorry that you've owned it since Hector was a pup."
Getting the information online saves Sawyer from making what she estimates would be five or six trips to various town offices a week. It also keeps her from having to pester municipal officials, who "don't always have the time or inclination to talk to you," she notes dryly.
As for the prospect of burglars using the databases to scope out potential targets, Sawyer thinks that's entirely unlikely, adding, "Why would they not just drive by the house?"
And we've got to agree. In an age of ever-shrinking municipal budgets, it makes sense to free up employees' time by making these records accessible online. Besides, if you've ever wondered what those new folks up the street paid for their house, now you don't have to do anything so indiscreet as ask them.
Beware of Cat
Casco Bay mariners will be keeping a sharp eye out.
News that The Cat, the high-speed ferry that has zipped across the Bay of Fundy between Bar Harbor and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, for the past seven summers, will offer weekend service between Portland and Canada means that the Forest City is once again an international gateway. The futuristic 900-passenger ship, which will moor at the International Marine Terminal abandoned by the Scotia Prince last year, can reach speeds of up to fifty-five miles per hour and will make the crossing in about five hours.
During its first summer operating from Bar Harbor, The Cat collided with a fishing boat near its Canadian homeport during heavy fog; the fishing boat's captain, who died during the accident, was later determined to have been at fault for not standing by while the ferry passed at relatively slow speed. Portland Harbor officials say that while The Cat will observe local speed limits, as it always has on the Bar Harbor-Yarmouth run, local mariners will need to do their part by giving the ferry the space it needs.
"There are speed restrictions for all vessels, and they're going to have to comply with those," explains Lieutenant Commander Michael Lingaitis, who oversees port operations in Portland for the U.S. Coast Guard. "They'll be operating just like a cruise ship or a tanker, so they'll be coming in at a safe speed and adhering to all the requirements."
That means that while The Cat may be moving at about twenty knots at the entrance to Portland Harbor — roughly defined as the area between Ram Island and Portland Head Light — it'll slow to about five knots as it approaches the inner harbor, according to Jeff Monroe, the city's transportation director.
Monroe says that The Cat will adhere to mariners' rules of the road, but he fears that some fishermen and recreational boaters might not know when to give way. "I never worry about the professional mariners, but I always have a great deal of concern over the people who are out there in their kayak and think they have the right of way over a 170,000-ton tanker," he says. "The crew on The Cat manages their bridge in a very effective, keen manner; the variable is always the kayak or the fishermen who are not paying attention."
He's right, of course, but let's hope that this summer this cat creeps, rather than pounces, through Maine waters.
Faces of History
State House portraits offer a gallery of past politicians.
They hang on the wall of the State House like silent observers, portraits of politicians past that are rarely noticed by capital regulars. But Maine's portrait collection includes almost every man who has been governor of the state, a smattering of first wives and senators, and the original painting that started it all, an eleven-foot-tall portrait of George Washington.
The individual paintings are under the care of the Maine State Museum, but the overall responsibility for the collection of some 134 portraits and their display in the State House falls to the State House and Capitol Park Commission, chaired by Earle Shettleworth, Jr., executive director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. "You can see about ninety paintings hanging in the State House at any one time," Shettleworth notes.
The collection includes just about every Maine governor since William King in 1820 — including outstanding double portraits of King and his wife by the famed artist Gilbert Stuart that hang in the governor's office. "We're missing a very small number of past governors," Shettleworth explains, "mostly people from the early years who served as temporary or acting governors."
Among the most recent acquisitions are portraits of Governor Samual E. Smith of Wiscasset and his wife. Smith served from 1831 to 1834, but apparently never sat for a formal state portrait. "Recently his descendants contacted us and said they had the pair of portraits they were willing to sell to the state," Shettleworth says. "So we found the funds to buy them, and they now hang side by side in the third floor corridor on the Senate end."
By long-standing tradition a rotating display of Maine's most recent governors hangs in the third-floor rotunda, while others are scattered in various hallways and corridors, interspersed with portraits of former Senators Margaret Chase Smith, Edmund S. Muskie, and other notables. The well-known, full-length Washington portrait hangs on a landing of the marble staircase.
"The collection is a great teaching tool," Shettleworth notes. "Thousands of people come to the State House every year." The collection also offers the discerning eye a history of portrait styles, from the dark, formal stiffness of the mid-nineteenth century to the colorful, relaxed portrayal of Governor Angus King. Perhaps they say as much about the state of Maine as they do about the people they portray.