Toilets and Tourists

Maine spends millions of public and private dollars a year attracting tourists, providing them memorable experiences, and trying to lure them back for another visit.  Most of that we do very well and tourism remains a keystone to our economic wellbeing.  There is at least one thing we do poorly – toilets.  The state motto seems to be, “Maine – Just hold it!”

Having reached “a certain age,” travel invariably entails planning for toilet stops.  Grocery stores, libraries, hospitals, and convenience stores (think Irving) will do in a pinch.  But I make note of the towns and regions where well-maintained public toilets serve the need.  These are places I want to go back to; I can concentrate on enjoying what they have to offer without having to scour the countryside to find toilets.  Probably families with kids would feel the same way about toilets as baby boomers do.

What makes good facilities?  They need to be designed to handle the demand comfortably; there needs to be signage to help you find them; they need to be open more than just the high season, particularly if we are trying to extend the tourist economy into the shoulder seasons; and they need to be cleaned.  Some places in Maine really get this, while others fall far short.  Here is my report card on a few places to which you might take a day trip from the Bangor area.

I-95 southbound in Newport.  Grade: F. Let’s get this one out of the way first.  Why the DOT closed this a few years ago and left the Hampden facility open is beyond me.  Even in days when my plumbing was more robust, the Newport facility was a necessary stop when heading South, particularly after that morning coffee.  Now there is nothing until the Gardiner facility (and you need a registered Maine guide to navigate in and out of this place).  Funding to keep this place open is a matter of priorities, and I would think servicing the most basic needs of the people who vacation in Maine might be a priority.

Bar Harbor.  Grade: A. More than anywhere else, this town gets it.  There is an adequate year-around facility by the town green and a sumptuous one up the hill from the waterfront which is open seasonally.  The only nicer facility I have encountered (would that be a hoity toidy?) is at the Northeast Harbor dock.

North Maine Woods Jo-Mary gate house.  Grade: B. This is a good old fashioned outhouse, but it earns its grade.  It is well located, clearly signed, and kept in excellent condition.

DOT facility on Route 9, Township 22.  Grade: D-.  The passing grade is only because there is a facility here, half way between Bangor and Calais.  The place is crudely built and less well maintained.  Hold it if you are able.

Belfast.  Grade: C. The facility at the town dock is adequate and adequately maintained, but it is only open seasonally.  Belfast has done so much to re-invent itself from its poultry processing days, good toilets open year around would be the next big step.  Camden’s facility is not any better than Belfast, but at least it has winter hours.  Town leaders from both towns would do well to visit Bar Harbor for advice.

Schoodic Point. Grade: A. Acadia National Park has several well-maintained seasonal facilities on the Schoodic Peninsula and the exclamation point is the “one-holer” at the entrance to the Schoodic Institute.  Open year around, clean, and convenient, it makes winter visits a treat for locals and tourists alike.

Greenville.  Grade: C. Well-located near the Mount Katahdin steamer, these are adequate to the task but seasonal facilities.

I could go on, but you get the idea.  I am sure that many people can share what they think are good and bad public toilet facilities around the State of Maine.

Toilets are a dirty business.  They are expensive to build and maintain well.  I can hear public officials now crying about the costs. But toilets are essential to making our visitors feel at home with us in Maine.  If we want them to come back, we need to stop telling them to just hold it.  If funding is the issue, then let’s add a penny to the gasoline tax from May to October and create a dedicated fund for the construction and maintenance of toilets and signage directing our visitors to good facilities.  We can call it the toidy tax.  Funds could be disbursed the way the extra gas tax dedicated to snowmobile trail maintenance is disbursed.  A cost-sharing program could help provide funding for those towns willing to collaborate on local public toilets.

The toilet is the overlooked and underappreciated part of successful tourism business.  Investing in toilet infrastructure, if the concept can be thought of that grandly, will pay big dividends in the form of happy visitors.  And if we build the toilets for the visitors, everyone will better enjoy traveling around Maine.

Mark W. Anderson

About Mark W. Anderson

I am proud to be a Mainer, born in Caribou and schooled at Brewer High School, Bowdoin College, and the University of Maine. I am grateful for a 35 year career at UMaine, the last decade in the School of Economics.