Whose Town Is It Anyway?

Kennebunks, Maine

A flurry of development in the Kennebunks has prompted a philosophical tug-of-war about the towns’ identities.

By Rob Sneddon
Photographed by Cara Slifka
If the character of a place derives from the people who live there, then this scene on a quiet Thursday night in March says more about the Kennebunks than a dozen picture-perfect postcards of Dock Square teeming with tourists or Cape Porpoise Harbor crowded with lobsterboats. Two-dozen residents, most over 40, are settled into folding chairs on the second floor of Washington Hose Company, the old fire hall in Kennebunk’s Lower Village. The view out the window is a still life of bare tree limbs. A thin fog, fed by snow cover that has lingered into spring, has leached all color from the early-evening sky.

Some people fear the Kennebunks are becoming a too planned and too precious Disney version of Maine.

These intrepid Lower Villagers are gathered on this raw night for the third in a series of visioning meetings. There’s a wonkiness to the proceedings, starting with that cringe-inducing label, visioning. The agenda includes a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) and is peppered with terms like wayfinding and viewsheds. But beneath the arid crust of public-policy jargon is a molten core, and meeting chair Mat Eddy, Kennebunk’s director of economic development, drills straight into the heart of it.

“What is a good developer?” Eddy asks.

The question hangs for a moment, like a well-struck golf ball, then it lands in the rough. Infectious snickers sweep through the room. Good developer? That’s an oxymoron!

Online-Only Pictures


Eddy knew this was coming. Over the past few years, a wave of commercial development has swept over Kennebunk and its neighbor across the Kennebunk River, Kennebunkport, giving fancy facelifts to modest motels and inns and elevating the dining scene with restaurants serving $37 entrées. Many business owners and residents welcome the transformation — and the affluent clientele it is attracting — but some people fear the Kennebunks are becoming a too planned and too precious Disney version of Maine. The Lower Village visioning meetings were called after Kennebunk residents objected so vociferously to one proposed development — an 80-unit hotel next to Federal Jack’s, the seminal brewpub on the Kennebunk River — that developer David Bateman abandoned the plan. “The community was so strongly against it, so emotional,” Eddy later explains, “we said, ‘Okay, this obviously pushed an envelope. So let’s open the envelope and see what’s inside.’ ”

Kennebunks, Maine

Tides Beach Club at Kennebunkport’s Goose Rocks Beach is part of Tim Harrington and partners’ “coastal chic” Kennebunkport Resort Collection. Though lovely, the resorts are part of a wave of development that has some in the Kennebunks on the defensive.

What Eddy found inside was a fiercely palpable sense of place. “The direction I get is, ‘We want to maintain this village feel,’ ” he says. “Everyone is concerned about preserving the character of the community. But how you get there — that’s the devil in the details.”

Identity crises in Lower Village aren’t exactly new. The place used to be called Harbor Village (and it may even be called that again if an initiative generated during those visioning meetings comes to pass). Unofficially it’s also been called Taint Town — as in ’tain’t Kennebunkport exactly and ’tain’t really Kennebunk either.

Lower Village is about four miles from Kennebunk’s Upper Square District. Upper Square and the rest of the downtown are so appealingly old-fashioned, it can seem as if the properties are trying to out-quaint each other. (You know you have serious antiquarian cred when you boast the state’s oldest historic district.) For a primer on New England architecture and old-money stuffiness, stroll Main Street, with its brick sidewalks, brick storefronts, and Brick Store Museum, then turn onto Summer Street, with its captains’ homes and other stately mansions. There’s the James Hubbard House (Colonial). The Taylor–Berry House (Federal). The Hugh McCulloch House (Georgian). The Nathaniel Lord Thompson House (Greek Revival). The John Adams Lord House (Italianate). The Horatio Moody House (Second Empire). The Hartley Lord House (Queen Anne). The Charles Goodnow House (Colonial Revival). And then there are the hybrids, such as the Phineas Hemmenway House (Federal and Greek Revival) and the George W. Bourne House, a.k.a. the Wedding Cake House (an ostentatious mashup of Federal and Gothic Revival).

Kennebunks, Maine

The outdoor daybeds at Kennebunkport’s Hidden Pond resort wouldn’t be out of place on a beach on Saint Lucia. The most luxurious of Kennebunkport’s new hospitality crop, Hidden Pond is helping to attract a more affluent breed of traveler to the Kennebunks in recent years.

But as Summer Street segues into Port Road, there’s a gradual transition from residential to rural and back again. By the time you reach Lower Village, you feel like you’re in a different town altogether. For Eddy, that disconnectedness can be a source of frustration. “If you were to take the Lower Village, with its water,” he says, “and put it together with the downtown, you’d have the perfect downtown.”

Instead, Lower Village shares its water with Kennebunkport’s Dock Square, a mere 88 feet away across the crumbling Mathew J. Lanigan Bridge (the state Department of Transportation plans to replace the bridge in 2017). But despite being a joined-at-the-hip locale, the two places are markedly different. On the Kennebunk side of the river, says Eddy, “You’ve got residences, you’ve got businesses, you’ve got restaurants and bars, you’ve got hotels, all in near proximity to one another.”

Where some people see two communities in the Kennebunks, others see only one.

Dock Square, by contrast, is a self-contained, tourist-oriented commercial district, separate from the surrounding neighborhood — and the neighbors want to keep it that way. “We have a large number of retired people in town,” says David James, pesident of the Kennebunkport Residents Association. “They don’t really appreciate having all the tourists, although they know it helps keep the town vibrant economically.”

The irony is that Kennebunkport’s most famous retirees, George and Barbara Bush, are also responsible for much of the tourist traffic. Just as the Kennedy compound helped boost Cape Cod’s profile in the 1960s, the Bush compound at Walker’s Point has given Kennebunkport the kind of international name recognition that no series of visioning meetings could ever conjure.

Kennebunkport, Bush Family Compound

Kennebunkport tourists photograph the Bush family compound at Walker’s Point.

And while it’s inarguably better to be famous for housing former presidents than for a prostitution scandal (Kennebunk’s most recent claim to fame was the arrest and conviction of a Zumba instructor who ran a prostitution business out of her studio), many Kennebunkport residents could do without the attention. “In the summer you have all the cruise ships coming into Portland and all the tourists pouring down into Kennebunkport to see the Bush estate,” James says. “It gets a little tedious trying to get through the Dock Square area. Thirty tour buses will descend on the town in one afternoon. That’s 1,200 people wandering the streets.”

But not enough of those tourists wander up Western Avenue into Lower Village to suit some Kennebunk merchants. That reveals another irony: Kennebunk, which has roughly three times the population of Kennebunkport and more people living paycheck to paycheck, would like to be what Eddy calls “a full-service, year-round community” with a substantial middle class. A large infusion of tourist dollars and a longer shoulder season would help. But many of those tourist dollars still end up in Kennebunkport, where the wealthy retirees would rather see the tourist trade end after Labor Day. “We like it the way it is in the wintertime,” James says.

Kennebunks, Maine

“Come see the quiet side of Kennebunkport,” advertises the old-school, budget-friendly Cape Porpoise Motel on Route 9 — a sentiment that rings truer as both Dock Square and Kennebunk’s Lower Village seem ever-more bustling.

Where some see two communities, others see only one. “When you live here,” developer and hotelier Tim Harrington says, “that little bridge is a meaningless divider. I’ve lived in Kennebunk, and I’ve lived in Kennebunkport. It’s the same village.”

Harrington is sitting in David’s KPT, a swanky restaurant in Dock Square overlooking the Kennebunk River. David’s KPT (named after Portland chef David Turin) is part of The Boathouse Waterfront, a $400-a-night hotel that is one of eight hotels and seven restaurants developed by Harrington’s company, the Kennebunkport Resort Collection (KRC), in the Kennebunks over the past six years.

As a marketing strategy, the “meaningless divider” mentality began to catch on several years ago when some businesses in Lower Village simply co-opted “Kennebunkport” as part of their name. Now there’s a movement to eliminate specificity altogether as more and more merchants and chamber-of-commerce types refer to the two towns collectively as the Kennebunks. David’s KPT is itself a subtle example of this shift away from two town names, evoking Kennebunkport while simultaneously de-emphasizing it.

Harrington is fully invested in the strategy. “All of our marketing and all of our PR is built around the destination of the Kennebunks,” he says. “We believe that a rising tide lifts all boats.”

Others, however, see not a rising tide but a tsunami, fearing a wave of high-end development will overrun the old, distinct neighborhoods and leave in its wake a smoothed-over, 92-square-mile plain of tourist bait. Consider some of the reactions when Harrington converted an old house on Western Avenue, in the heart of Kennebunk’s Lower Village, into a boutique hotel.

“Everyone is talking about the shocking transformation of a Federal-style farmhouse, whose proud façade graced Chase Hill since its construction 150 or more years ago,” wrote Kennebunkport resident Susan Graham on her blog, Overheard at the Post Office. “The new structure, modestly labeled ‘The Grand’ but more accurately described as ‘The Super-Colossal,’ is over-scaled, too high, and too large in volume. It towers above everything around it.”

A local band called the Sock Puppets has lampooned Harrington and his ambitions with a song, “Diamond Tim Harpoon”: “There came into town one day a stranger/And he waved his plump and pampered hands around/‘Everything you have, good folks, I’ll buy it/I’ll tear everything you built on down.’”

It’s not that Harrington’s opponents object to tourism per se. Instead, some see his efforts as a misguided attempt to bulldoze away the clapboard funk that made the area around the Kennebunk River so popular in the first place. Even KRC’s trendy prepositional labels strike a wrong note. One Dock at Kennebunkport Inn. The Lodge on the Cove. Square Peg at Round Hole.

The Potting Shed, Kennebunkport, Maine

The Potting Shed private dining room at Hidden Pond’s Earth restaurant captures some of the old Kennebunkport rustic charm.

Harrington rejects such criticism. “We’re proud of what we’ve done,” he says. “We have a good reputation for doing things kind of in keeping with the culture and the look of a historic New England fishing village.” And he has plenty of allies around town who agree, including some whose support might seem counterintuitive. Take Steve Kingston, who has operated the Clam Shack on the Kennebunk River since 2000. Kingston now finds himself competing not only with Harrington’s high-end eateries, but also Tia’s Topside (a Boston export) and, new in 2015, the Spirit of Massachusetts (a 125-foot schooner converted to a floating restaurant) and Ports of Italy (a Boothbay Harbor export). How does Kingston feel about peddling his famous take-out in the midst of all that fine dining?

“I think it’s great,” he says. “I absolutely welcome it on a few different levels. In a competitive sense I welcome the matching of good food with good food, drawing more diners to the area. That’s good for all of us. Restaurants with great reputations will continue to put the Kennebunks on the map.”

Everyone is concerned about preserving the character of the community. But how you get there — that’s the devil in the details. Mat Eddy

While it’s generated more controversy, the recent spate of commercial development pales next to the wave of residential development — or, perhaps more accurately, residential redevelopment. “That means properties that have already been built that are remodeled or renovated,” says Wayne Berry, a building contractor and former Kennebunk selectman. “There’s a lot of that going on, mostly because of the lack of raw land.”

Kennebunks10Much of that land was snapped up during the area’s first great wave of development, in the mid- to late-19th century. The Kennebunks had more hotel rooms in 1900 than today. Many private waterfront cottages have been around even longer. So wealthy newcomers have to be creative. “The opportunities lie in finding a gem in the rough that you can polish up,” Berry says. “We’ve seen teardowns and redevelopments of subdivisions at Kennebunk Beach that were new in the 1960s. These were not derelict buildings — they were somebody’s everyday home.”

Redevelopers who are restricted to an existing footprint often build up instead of out. “The ability to rebuild high enough to see over those 1800s beach cottages makes it worthwhile for somebody to come in and pay a reasonably hefty price,” Berry says.

If you haven’t visited in a while, the change can be jarring. “You remember the town of your youth, and you regret that it isn’t like that anymore,” says Tom Bradbury, executive director of the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust. He laughs and adds, “And there’s nobody who does that more than me, probably.” All the same, Bradbury acknowledges, “Every place is in a constant state of evolution. And if you’re not evolving, you’re declining.”

As an example, he cites his own house, which was built in 1730. Bradbury’s great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather acquired the house in 1736. “And one of the first things he did was add on to it,” Bradbury says. “One time, I had an archaeologist go through the house with me, and I was saying that I wished there were more original pieces that I could see. He pointed out that the house is still here today only because people made it livable for the standard of their day. When electricity came, they added electricity. When plumbing came, they added plumbing. When indoor heating came, they added indoor heating. And each time they were thrilled when they made those changes.”

We have a good reputation for doing things kind of in keeping with the culture and the look of a historic New England fishing village. Tim Harrington

Renovating a historic structure is one thing. Recreating one is something else. The trust has encountered stiff opposition to its proposed River Heritage Educational Center, which involves building a replica of an 18th-century tidal gristmill that burned down in 1994 and using it for programs, including milling demonstrations. Nearby residents say not only is the project not permitted in their historic district neighborhood, but also the trust is straying from its mission of land conservation and historic preservation in pursuit of what is essentially a tourist attraction.

“I’m afraid that the Perkins Grist Mill does not exist,” said John Bannon, a lawyer representing residential abutters, at a planning board meeting last fall. “I’m sorry, but it has been gone, it hasn’t been operated since 1937 and it has not physically existed, except as archeological remains, since 1994. So, what the trust is proposing is not to protect historic resources. It is, in fact, impairing them by introducing new, disparate elements.”

Kennebunks11

The trust also raised eyebrows — and some hackles — when it supported Hidden Pond, Tim Harrington’s $900-a-night cottages on Goose Rocks Road (Harrington calls it “summer camp with five-star-hotel services”). During Hidden Pond’s grand opening, the trust received the proceeds from the resort’s “decorator showcase” event. While conceding that he “can see where some could question” the trust’s cozy relationship with Harrington, Bradbury rejects the idea that any alliance between a developer and a conservation group is a conflict of interest. “In fact,” he says, “I saw it as just the opposite.”

It gets a little tedious trying to get through the Dock Square area. Thirty tour buses will descend on the town in one afternoon. That’s 1,200 people wandering the streets. David James

Bradbury says the trust changed its philosophy more than 30 years ago, after a protracted legal battle against a proposed subdivision next to one of its holdings. “The developers walked away frustrated that they couldn’t make the profits they had foreseen,” he says, “and we walked away frustrated that we hadn’t fully saved what we might have. But we also came away with the knowledge that fighting is expensive and frustrating and not any fun. So we said, ‘Instead of defining ourselves by what we’re against, let’s define ourselves by what we’re for.’

“Now, if we value a piece of land and we think the community would value it as well, we buy it and set it aside instead of waiting until it comes on the market to fight for it. And instead of raising money for lawsuits that get marginal results, we raise the money to get exactly what we want.”

The land that Harrington acquired for Hidden Pond, Bradbury says, was never on the trust’s wish list, therefore, it had no reason to oppose the development.

Bradbury contends that fears of developers destroying the Kennebunks’ unique character are overblown. “Those [natural] elements in the community that make it special and give it that sense of place are still there,” he says. “The town will continue to revolve around those elements, and the core look of the town will remain despite changes in the look of the houses or what’s happening in the commercial zones.”

What it ultimately comes down to, says Bradbury, is that “there is no way of codifying taste. That’s just a struggle in futility.”

“It’s so subjective to say ‘Keep [development] within the New England charm of the community, because everybody’s vision of that is different,” agrees Bonnie Clement, owner of H.B. Provisions, a year-round general store in the Lower Village. For her part, Clement sees the debate over esthetics in the Kennebunks’ as a healthy sign.

“If something doesn’t feel right, we speak our word about it,” she says. “If there’s grumbling at these [public] meetings, it’s because people care.”


DownEastCover1508-1200Buy this issue and read more about your 10 favorite Maine state parks, the Maine accent, the Spose interview, blueberry pancakes, and a look at Smokin’ Good BBQ’s menu. Gift subscriptions available.

Rob Sneddon

Contributing editor Rob Sneddon is the author of The Phantom Punch, the story behind the controversial 1965 bout between Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston in Lewiston.

  • GladysKravitz

    Let’s be serious here…everyone questions where the money train came from when little Timmy had none. Miami? No mention of who is dropping such huge amounts of ca$h in town to buy up the place, squeeze every bit of natural forest, fauna and flavor out of our communities for the best ten (10) weeks of the year and then runs home to Florida.

    “South Beach isn’t the free-spirited haven of gayness it once, Gay transplants morphed Miami Beach from a sleepy little island into Rio de Janeiro with an edge.” BY NATALIE O’NEILL from the Miami New Times And now folks they are doing their best to transform us into say, Ft. Lauderdale North, I am not a hater, just want the facts out there. Where’s the beef?

    • Fake_Name2

      Gladys, take a chill pill.

      • GladysKravitz

        see ya in Rio Timmie

  • GladysKravitz

    Secondly, Tia’s charges three times the amount for the same food that you get in Bahston. Joke For real folks, I have never seen the streets and beaches here empty like this year. Not even a traffic jam on the Fourth of July…no one is coming here. They are middle class Americans stuffing their leased SUV’s full of every toy they own and overloading their vehicles until those treads bulge like grandmas’ bra. Heaping on kayaks, bikes and grills to head up North where they split a hotel room or get a campsite and sprawl out for the weekend, maybe a week or two and return to the grind in Suburbia. THEY cannot afford the cost of food, rooms or the new parking machines. LOL, the parking machines are a huge JOKE among the locals because they are so stupid, how much did it cost to buy these things for the ten weeks?

  • GladysKravitz

    Our town managers are not required to live in either town, so they really do not give a hoot how much the locals complain about hiring all these useless overpaid “professionals” so-called; planners, directors of this, directors of that, all who have come to town because they are buds with the overpaid managers who walk Main St. because all of them really have nothing to do. Yes, men and women who could give a rat’s butt about how we are going to pay all of these taxes, yes, to attract tourists for ten weeks a year and yes, so the business owners who do not call Maine home can run back to Florida with all that $$$$.

  • GladysKravitz

    Now, if you really want to know Kennebunkport and Kennebunk take a walk with me in January. Then you will realize the true blessing of having to deal with all the chaos for the ten weeks. I am blessed because I own a home in each town and another rural town in Maine where I can escape to avoid the maddening crowd. But the inevitable destruction of the natural areas such as Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge which has basically been abandoned by the Federal Government really disturbs me…and the lack of enforcement by the now demoralized, once proud and effective Maine DEP who you cannot even engage in a discussion on how Kennebunk is making a park out of their TOXIC waste dump for children/families to play on and get cancer. Yep, that’s progress.

  • GladysKravitz

    Think about this for a minute, I have lived here half my life before finding out that my family settled this area in the 1630’s. They have tread these shores much like me, waiting for reason and calmness in their lives to enjoy the nature and peace of our country. If you wait long enough, the people who come here last about two years…hubby finds a new girl in the city and wifey catches on, divides the assets and moves on…it is sad to watch because most of the expensive huge McMansions are empty or sit sadly waiting for the new victims. Now my family, lived in the wilderness with basically nothing but family, friends and farm animals and stayed for almost 400 years living off the land and with nature not against nature happily. Rich in land, freedom, educating themselves and others about how to live in harmony with only a spit of chaos every few 100 years.

  • GladysKravitz

    No need to fret people the tide comes and goes and so will this current trend of one up”manship” of those from away trying to tame the locals and create Shangri La where there really is no need to change a thing, because where we live, walk, breathe and swim “is” heaven. And like all good things, this too shall pass; fake magazine articles extolling fakeness will find some other place to write and photoshop, the villages will return back to calm, old shanties by the sea, and we will wait to see who wants to throw a party for a bunch of fake wanna be rich people in the next life. Just really burns me up to see articles written in fake “Maine” magazines about Kennebunkport and not one person in the article, pictures and glamour shots is actually from heah!

  • GladysKravitz

    Did you notice all of the pictures are void of PEOPLE? Looks brand new because well fake people do not photograph well. Tour buses come and go, the old folks tip the wait staff a quarter, for a cup of chowder, a roll and water. Bathrooms, well I can attest to the fact every john in town is well used when the buses roll in and a fire hose is needed to hose them off. Lovely thoughts from an over-used quaint village…Joe hire me.

    • Gladys – Hoping you’ll enjoy some of the online-extra photos that we’ll be adding to this story in a few days, which include people in and around town. Thanks for reading.

      • GladysKravitz

        and not one of them include a “real” resident of Kennebunkport

        • Black Fly

          But that’s what the story is about, right, Gladys? It’s about how the Kennebunks are being rebranded into a movie set version of Maine. Hell, the developers have even given us Cabot Cove. That’s what the pictures show.

      • GladysKravitz

        Joe leave your ivory tower and come see what it’s all about.

  • David Smalley

    I grew up in the Moody/ Ogunquit are in the 50’s. It always saddened me over the years to watch what happened to a lovely place.
    I met my wife of 45 years in KPORT in 1970. We return for a stay most every year. This year included. I am always impressed that KPORT to this point has had enough vision to retain the amazing natural charm of this place. It is true that it is changing and I just hope that they do not sell out on this lovely part of the State Of Maine. What a shame it would be.
    David Smalley

  • Nam1

    Maine, the way life should be… Now they come in droves to find out if it’s true.

  • lowervillagegal

    There are so many things wrong with this article and the obvious bias of the writer. Square Peg at Round Hole? What are you even talking about? And you make fun of the name One Dock…do you even know that is the street address of the hotel where the restaurant is located! And of that charming “farmhouse” where the The Grand Hotel is? Ummmm yeah, that was a dilapidated building with broken windows and rats running through it and kids selling some not so legal substances in the driveway. As a home owner and business owner in Kennebunk for the past ten years I am so disappointed in your bias and tabloid type tactics you are exploiting in this article. There are two sides to every story and shame on you for not doing your home work and speaking to others who have benefitted from all of the WONDERFUL things that have happened in our lovely town over the past few years. And you don’t have to take my word, you can speak to my 20+ employees who are employed year round….I would have expected so much more from you Downeast Magazine…

  • ghutch

    Kennebunkport was a great place to grow up, now when I go home to visit I cannot wait to leave. Not all change is for the better. No place to buy gasoline, Dock Squre used to have Shemies, Dora’s, a barbershop, Smiths market etc, now just overpriced restaurants, bars and more bars. We moved North but by the look of things headed our way, not far enough.