KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — It is a rainy Friday morning in late June, hardly tourist weather, but Dock Square is jammed with bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Undeterred, people pour into the retail district’s shops, which feature products such as lobster-designed handbags, locally made pottery, T-shirts, and kitschy knickknacks. Others stand patiently in line at the Clam Shack to buy one of the restaurant’s signature lobster rolls.
It’s been like this for years in Kennebunkport, a town of about 3,900 year-round residents whose sandy beaches, rocky outcroppings, postcard-perfect scenery, and fishing-village charm make it a vacation destination. But look around this season and it’s clear changes are underway in a place that has long traded in the pleasing sameness of things. A group called Kennebunkport Resort Collection, led by two Massachusetts-bred entrepreneurs, has built or renovated nine hotels and seven restaurants — including four this summer alone.
The surge in commercial development has brought upgrades to grand but aging structures, introduced world-class dining options, and attracted more affluent visitors. Many businesses and residents applaud the makeover, but some wonder whether too much glamour is being injected into the seaside region, threatening to overwhelm its old-fashioned feel.
Tim Harrington, 49, one of the founding partners of the four-member team that runs the Resort Collection, said he does not want to change the character of a region whose beauty and proximity to Boston first attracted him decades ago. But for all its charm, Harrington said, he believed the stretch of southern Maine coastline was “sleepy” and in need of some “oomph.”
“We are trying to bring some more choices for eating, for entertainment, and for lodging,” said Harrington, who grew up in Lexington, Mass., and now divides his time between Maine and Miami Beach. “Our whole point is to market the destination. Everybody benefits.”
Sheila Matthews-Bull, a member of the town’s board of selectmen and manager of the Rhumb Line Resort, supports the Collection’s vision, but she acknowledged there are concerns that the new establishments — including luxury cottages that rent for more than $1,000 a night — are too fancy or will push out other locally owned establishments.
“Some of these new properties, they are a little more glitzy than we are used to. They are more pricey than we are used to,” Matthews-Bull said. “Has it changed some of our atmosphere? absolutely. Is it good or bad? Depends on who you talk to.”
The Kennebunks, which include Kennebunk, Kennebunkport, and Arundel, have been particularly popular with Boston-area residents — the city is just 90 miles south. One of the top attractions is Walker’s Point, home to the Bush family compound. Sightseers come to view the looming nine-bedroom house located on a strip of land jutting into the Atlantic. If they are especially lucky, a visitor might even glimpse a former president or two.
But like the Bush-era presidencies, some of Kennebunkport’s restaurants and hotels have been receding into history — better known for past glory years than what they now offer. At least until Harrington and his partner, Debra Lennon started shaking things up in 2009.
Among their recent projects, Harrington and Lennon bought and renovated the modest harborside Landing Hotel and Restaurant in Dock Square and turned it into the more polished Boathouse Hotel & Marina, with a restaurant run by award-winning Portland chef David Turin.
They control a total of 220 rooms and employ about 433 people — providing a significant economic boost for the Kennebunks.
At the high end of the Resort Collection’s empire is Hidden Pond, which opened in 2008. The secluded spot offers travelers a camp feeling with upscale amenities — 36 luxury cottages with gourmet kitchens and outdoor showers that rent for more than $1,000 a night. There are evening bonfires at which waiters serve champagne, a treetop spa, and a gourmet restaurant run by celebrated Boston chef Ken Oringer. Although Hidden Pond says business is strong, it was still possible last week to book a room for a few days during the Fourth of July holiday week.
Ashley Padget, general manager of Alisson’s Restaurant — celebrating its 40th year in Dock Square — is not threatened by the competition. It’s pushing everybody in the tourism business to work harder, she said, and boosting nightlife by bringing in more live music and entertainment.
“The heart of the town is still here. There’s also a newer, fresher vibe to it,” said Padget, a lifelong resident. “It has made it young and new again.”
Harrington says that’s precisely the feeling he wants to cultivate. He began his career building shopping centers in the Boston area and got involved in the hospitality industry eight years ago when he purchased and renovated Kennebunkport’s Cottages at Cabot Cove, a cluster of 16 small homes.
Bolstered by the experience, he bought 60 acres of birch groves and balsam fir near expansive Goose Rocks beach and built what is now Hidden Pond, with the help of financier Marc Granetz.
In 2009, Harrington joined forces with Lennon, a former Sheraton executive and Wellesley native who bought the Kennebunkport Inn in 2001 after a destination wedding in the area led her to move there full time.
Harrington, who enjoys traveling across Europe, South America, and elsewhere, said he works well with Lennon, 53, because of their complementary talents.
“I know how to stay in a hotel; I know how to eat in a restaurant,” he said. “Deb knows how to run a hotel.”
As partners, the two combined their properties and set out to expand the joint holdings. For example, they launched the open-air Earth restaurant at Hidden Pond in 2011 in collaboration with Oringer, known for his Clio and Toro restaurants in Boston.
They also joined with entrepreneur Michael Shea this summer to open or remake three more hotels and another restaurant, including the Cape Arundel Inn and the Lodge on the Cove, a “retro chic” lodge and restaurant created from a traditional motor lodge.
“We went on a little bit of a buying spree,’’ Harrington admitted. “We had these crazy schedules to get these things renovated and built.”
Jason Wasserman, a Syracuse University student who grew up in the area, said the projects have brought in more traffic and parking headaches. He likes the wider range of restaurants, but worries whether some of the older establishments will still be able to make a go of it.
“There’s a lot more going on,’’ Wasserman said. “It’s a trade-off.”
At Kennebunkport’s Nonantum Resort, general manager Tina Hewett Gordon hopes the boom continues. Because of the newcomers, she said, occupancy at the 130-year-old Nonantum is up this year.
“They have a huge PR machine,’’ Gordon said. “Our feeling is the rising tide floats all boats.’’