Pier pressure

Some unlikely players join the fight against the gentrification of Old Orchard Beach
By TONY GIAMPETRUZZI  |  August 8, 2007
LEAVE IT LIKE IT IS: Longtime camper Barbra Womack, right, and campground owner Jason Ahearn.

When you go to Old Orchard Beach and ask Barbra Womack where she’s from, she says “down the street.” She’s really from Cumberland, Rhode Island, though, and she’s sitting in the “home” of Melba LaPlante, who is really from Auburn, Massachusetts, a suburb of Worcester.

“Home” for Womack and LaPlante is Powder Horn Campground, one of a few trailer/RV camps left in Old Orchard Beach, a town that may be returning to its affluent roots. Most may not know it, but what has been widely regarded as the Coney Island of Maine for the last half-century was actually the meeting place of Rose Fitzgerald and Joseph P. Kennedy — their families summered in OOB, as did many of their wealthy peers.

But the summer playground of the well-heeled eventually became a destination for families of the working-class Baby Boom generation and a bumper crop of Canadians, the latter because Old Orchard Beach is really the first strip of sand of note as you head south along the eastern seaboard.

You’ve likely heard the news: Old Orchard Beach is being rediscovered. As real estate on the coast of much of the rest of the state has become a precious commodity, a new breed of shore seekers are looking for affordable year-round digs and are now moving into — and transforming — what has long been just a one-season tourist town. The story here is the same as lots of other places: some old-time residents content with the town’s ne’er-do-well image are fighting wealthy-do-gooder newcomers and some town officials, who want change.

However, in OOB, that fight, against the return to gentrification, is also being joined by the folks who consider the town, the beach, the Tilt-A-Whirl and the sno-cone a part of their “true” home, even though they spend only a few months a year there. Sure, their home may be a modest trailer nestled among dozens of others far away from the action of Old Orchard, but they consider themselves just as much a part of the carnival as anyone else.

Summer fun
Just a few weeks ago the Portland Press Herald led an article with: “Fried food, rides, miles of beach — what’s not to love about OOB?” The story extolled the beach and the bawdiness that most of us conjure when we think of Old Orchard — in other words, old news.

Meanwhile, others have pointed out that, if fried food and “rides” are your thing, then that love affair may be fleeting. Recently, the writers at PortCity Life and the venerable Down East magazine exposed that, like it or not, the town is on a very calculated upswing and a sharp veer from the carnival capital of Maine — Palace Playland is falling apart and filthy toilets that once cost a quarter to frequent are now immaculate and free, wrote PortCity Life, adding that the most recent addition to the town’s living and staying options, the $25 million Grand Victorian condo hotel, is a harbinger of what may be the transformation of the only affordable (and notoriously debaucherous) seaside town in southern Maine.

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