The real estate venture sounded promising.
More than a decade ago developers from outside Bar Harbor, Maine, subdivided a vast, oceanfront property in the fishing community of Steuben and started to sell lots.
Sales began in 2004, the town said, with the first buyer paying $343,000 for a little more than six acres. A few more lots sold, but then the recession hit. Subdivision sales came to a standstill. Over 13 years, just two homes were built.
“This was intended to be an upper-scale neighborhood and marketed like that. It just didn’t happen,” said Julie Ginn, the town clerk and tax collector in Steuben, a community of about 1,100 residents. “People here can’t afford waterfront property. We are not Bar Harbor or Mount Desert Island. We have the beauty of it but we don’t have the economy.”
Now 40 to 50 lots on the 600-acre site are going on sale Saturday at deep discounts in a liquidation event that has been heavily marketed to residents in Massachusetts and nearby states.
The advertisements include mailings and Facebook posts featuring a sunset view over a pristine shoreline. The sale is billed as a “one day only” opportunity offering lots with ocean access starting at $19,900, oceanfront tracts of up to 52 acres from $79,900, and a 5-acre, shoreline plot plus building materials for a 2,000-square-foot cottage for $119,900.
The catch? You’ve got to enjoy solitude.
“That’s the drawback of Steuben,” said Ginn. “We have no business to speak of. The closest Dunkin’ Donuts is 30 minutes away. Starbucks is even further away, and forget that because none of us know how to order at Starbucks.”
The fire sale prices are symptomatic, economists said, of Steuben’s location and a real estate market in northern Maine that hasn’t experienced the post-recession rebound seen in other parts of the state.
The largest nearby tourist attraction is Acadia National Park, which drew a record-high estimated 3.3 million visits last year, but Steuben has the misfortune of being located about an hour beyond the popular vacation spot. From Boston, it’s about a five-hour trip by car.
“It’s past the point where many tourists go,” said James Breece, an associate professor of economics at the University of Maine in Orono. “It’s not as desirable as Camden or Boothbay or Bar Harbor.”
Figures from the Maine Association of Realtors show home sales jumped in Maine by more than 6 percent between August 2016 and August 2017, but sales in Washington County, where Steuben is located, fell by nearly 4 percent.
“Talk to anyone in the real estate business — the market is gone,” said Kevin Barbee, one of the developers of the for-sale subdivision, called The Preserve at Dolly Head. “I’m sitting on a lot of lots.”
Barbee said he tried listing the property with local realtors for years before he enlisted help from two North Carolina companies that organize land liquidation sales.
Land records show the site isn’t in foreclosure, but Barbee said he wants to sell.
“I’m not in any kind of financial problems,” he said.
Art Secor, managing partner at LW Land, a Charlotte, N.C., firm helping with the sale, said he expects that all the lots will sell on Saturday because demand for ocean-side property is so high. The marketing effort, he said, has targeted people who live within four to five hours from Steuben by car and may want a retirement property or second home.
“There are people . . . who don’t want to spend $1 million on Bar Harbor, but they can afford a $200,000 lot 45 minutes away, where the land is really lovely,” said Secor. “We try to have a price point for all buyers. There’s going to be a lot in there for every economic status.”
But where will buyers get basic necessities or medical care? Secor pointed to Ellsworth, about 25 miles away, where there is a hospital, a Walmart Supercenter, and the Maine Coast Mall.
Steuben also has The Aerie Restaurant, which seats up to 72 guests for dinner following concerts at the Eagle Hill Institute, a scientific organization specializing in the natural history sciences. A violin and piano concert is scheduled for Saturday evening.
Crews have been preparing the subdivision for the sale by cleaning and installing a boat ramp and gate, Secor said. About half of the property will be set aside as conservation land and won’t be sold.
Despite the activity, some residents said they weren’t aware of the sale.
“It’s really remote even compared to the rest of Steuben,” said Steven Carter, a boat builder and owner of Maine’s Own Blue Bay Boat.
Carter, 56, said he moved to Steuben from Tremont on Mount Desert Island five years ago, building a home and boat shop on 1.5 acres he purchased for $8,500. His hometown, he said, had become too busy.
“It’s not the same place where I grew up,” Carter said. “I like to try to keep it as quiet as I can around me.”
Ginn, the town official, said she has high hopes for the sale.
“I’d love to see our tax base grow. I would love to see full-time residents come and put some kids in our school,” she said. “We here definitely want it to succeed.”