My brother e-mailed me the other day to ask what I thought about L.L. Bean launching its own amusement park in Freeport. At first I assumed he was joking, but, alas, he was serious. The venerable Maine retailer is indeed planning to open a theme park, about a mile from its flagship store, within three years. Bean spokespeople opaquely describe the concept as "a family-friendly outdoor adventure attraction with lodging amenities under something similar to a theme park operating model." Sounds like Six Flags Over Freeport to me.
Given Bean's track record, I imagine the eventual park - if it's ever built - will be tasteful as far as amusement parks go. But the prospect of electronic shooting ranges and actors dancing around in fuzzy L.L. Bear costumes saddens me beyond words. I understand Bean's need to think outside the shipping box. Its corn-fed competitor Cabela's is about to open a 125,000-square-foot store just down the road in Scarborough. But it's hard to reconcile the leather-bound authenticity that has been Bean's trademark for ninety-some years with go-cart rides and waterslides.
Something similar is happening in Bangor. Back in 2003 Maine voters rejected a proposed casino to be built by the Passamaquoddies and Penobscots in Sanford. Perversely, Mainers voted that same day in favor of allowing harness tracks to install slot machines to prop up the declining horse-racing industry. Four years later, a 1,500-slot machine casino looms on the Bangor horizon. Somehow, a few slots to support Maine's hard-working horsepeople have become a Vegas-style monstrosity trumpeted as a destination resort that will lure thousands of visitors to the Queen City.
The easy appeal of destination attractions, be they casinos or theme parks, makes a certain amount of sense. But it strikes me that Maine's signature values - rugged beauty, small-town independence - are not fundamentally enhanced by cinder block and plaster edifices. Consider our two nicknames: the Pine Tree State and Vacationland. I'd argue that they describe differing visions for Maine. Perhaps there's no economic future in the concept of unspoiled evergreen forests. Maybe the future does belong to the ticket takers and oddsmakers. But I think I'll always be nostalgic for the days when the best things about
L.L. Bean were the hunting shoes and the best things about harness racing were the horses.