Thursday, June 25, 2009

Camden does the 180

The other day, Camden voters (who seem to go to the polls a lot) approved a moratorium on franchise businesses. The stimulus was the attempt a couple of months ago by a Dunkin Donuts franchisee to set up shop on Main Street, which license was temporarily granted, then taken away, then voted on by referendum, now banished (but only for 180 days, when the ban could be extended or voted on again). Clearly, the town is somewhat divided between two kinds of brand-consciousness.

Obviously, Dunks has a brand, as does Camden, both apparently world-famous. The former is feared as something that could destroy the latter, if the slippery slope thing happens (Dunks, J Crew, Walmart). Would Camden suffer if a couple of innocent little franchises sneaked in? No. Would it suffer if there were a lot? Yes and no, since it depends on your definition of suffering.

Maine has long cultivated a certain brand of purity of life, vigorous vacationing, clean everything, natural enjoyment, regeneration. In the continual quest for tourists (here's where the suffering definition comes in - we need them, we hate them), the message has to contain both uniqueness and comfort. There's no problem with Maine's uniqueness, but comfort in the US increasingly means familiarity, i.e., the right not to be surprised by weird foods, inns without wifi, unexplored coffees, off-brand clothes, local characters emerging from the woods for a slug at Joe's Corner Bar. Ergo, the franchises of Freeport, Kennebunkport, Boothbay, Bar Harbor and their mini-clones on various stretches of Route 1.

So I guess Camden is really discussing the need to attract the right kind of tourist. The majority of citizens, at least for now, wants the kind who want the surprise, even though to this non-shopper's mind, buying at Gap is very little different from buying at Priscilla's Boutique. The real surprise is beyond Main Street in the woods or on the shore or on the water, and I expect most tourists still come to Maine for all the right reasons.

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