2016-05-13 / Front Page

Kennebunk looks to bump up B&Bs

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

John and Kathy Daamen, owners of the Waldo Emerson Inn, and their dog, Waldo. (Duke Harrington photo) John and Kathy Daamen, owners of the Waldo Emerson Inn, and their dog, Waldo. (Duke Harrington photo) KENNEBUNK — When John and Kathy Daamen cashed in their 401(k) plans to buy the Waldo Emerson Inn on Summer Street, they thought they were making a retirement dream come true. But that was 14 years ago, and after pouring nearly $200,000 into the historic bed and breakfast and not getting a cent out of it, they’re nearly ready to throw in the towel.

But they have one last chance to make the business self-sustaining, and it’s one they say could help the entire town.

Following the unanimous endorsement of selectmen April 26, the town meeting warrant in June will include a question asking voters if they want to change zoning rules in the urban residential district to allow up to six rental rooms in bed and breakfast establishments.

Currently B&Bs in that zone, which traces a horseshoe down Summer Street, then Sea Road and along Western Avenue, are limited to no more than four rental rooms.

“A four-bedroom bed and breakfast is just not sustainable,” John Daamen said, noting that it’s only during the summer months when all four rooms at the Waldo Emerson Inn are rented. Those peak months have to pay for the negative cash flow the Daamens deal with for the balance of the year.

“Anything less then six rooms is a losing proposition, unless you have some secondary form of income,” he said.

In some areas of Kennebunk, a B&B can have as many as eight rooms, but when taking their request for more rooms to the planning board earlier this year, the Daamens agreed to pursue a cap of six in their district. Renting out two more rooms each summer, they say, will help stem the flow of red ink that runs across their balance sheets the rest of the year.

“I am sorry to say, very much so, that if not for this, we may have to sell, probably as a residence, and then there goes another cottage industry in town,” John Daamen said on Monday, while reviewing bills at the kitchen table of what is both his business and his home.

John Daamen, a retired engineer, and Kathy, a retired nurse, say they have poured “every cent” made from the inn back into it, upgrading electrical, heating and hot water systems, along with general repairs. Kathy Daamen’s family used to vacation in Kennebunk, and the couple takes great pride in owning what is reputed to be the oldest surviving home in the Kennebunks, with the oldest portion, the Dutch gambrel, built by Waldo Emerson, great uncle of the poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, in 1753. They live, they say, only on Social Security and income from the adjoining gift shop.

“We put the building out on the market for testing, to see what it might bring,” John Daamen said. If we ever sold, it would be at a loss. There’s no way to make back what we have put into this.”

If the Daamens do sell, they would not be the first. In recent years, both the Hounds Tooth Inn and the Grasshopper Inn closed, leaving the Waldo Emerson as the only remaining B&B in Kennebunk’s urban residential zone. But the zoning change would not benefit them alone, the Daamens say; it could serve to revitalize many large, historic homes, while feeding businesses across town.

“We serve breakfast, but we send our guests for dinner downtown, or in West Kennebunk,” Kathy Daamen said. “And they shop at stores in Lower Village and all over town.”

The Daamens are not the only ones making that claim of side benefits to the proposed zoning change. On March 8, the Kennebunk Economic Development Committee voted to support the zoning change.

“These facilities operate as good local businesses, returning revenue to the community,” committee chairman Blake Baldwin wrote. “We believe this is an effective use of unusual properties and would avoid the need to depend on larger, chain-like hotel operations.”

When selectmen first took up the issue at their April 12 meeting, Laura Dolce, executive director of the Kennebunk Kennebunkport and Arundel Chamber of Commerce, was watching at home on community television. She was so moved that she dashed off a letter of support, which Selectman Richard Morin read aloud while the session was still in progress.

“Not only would this help the Daamens and the Waldo Emerson Inn, but it would give new revenue options to those in the zoning area attempting to support large and lively older homes,” she wrote. “Innkeepers are good businesspeople, contributing to our tax base and employing dozens, as well as good neighbors.

“Heavily regulated, they represent clean, low-key businesses that add to our town’s appeal,” Dolce wrote.

The Daamens also note the rise of rental rooms that are not regulated. Currently, John Daamen says, there are 246 properties in the Kennebunks offering rooms, and often the entire property, for short-term rent on the website airbnb. Those properties do not pay any of the business licenses paid to the town and state that the Daamens and other proprietors like them must pay, nor are they subject to the same grueling host of safety and business regulations. They also are not taxed as commercial properties.

“And it’s not only that,” John Daamen says. “When we rent a room though expedia or hotels.com, they take 15 to 20 percent, right off the top. But airbnb only takes a few dollars, $8 or $10. So, it is very hard to compete.”

And the cutoff between an airbnb rental and the maximum revenue that can be generated from a commercially licensed bed and breakfast is not all that great. While the Daamens are currently limited to no more than four rooms, Kennebunk zoning rules state that “private homes shall not be deemed or considered lodging places and subject to a license where not more than 3 rooms are let.”

Sharon Staz, former general manager of the Kennebunk Light and Power District, and, even more formerly, a bed and breakfast owner, agrees that four rooms just don’t generate the revenue needed to remain in business.

“I am no longer an innkeeper because you can’t make it on four [rooms],” she said at the April 21 selectmen’s meeting, suggesting that many of the stately homes along Summer Street, several of which currently sport for-sale signs, might get redeveloped and divided up into apartment units.

“With the houses that we have in Kennebunk and the magnificence of many of them, I think this [zoning change proposal] is a good opportunity for many more B&Bs, and to keep the ones we have.”

“This is an ideal location for taking those old homes and giving them some new life and have somebody invest in them, with a self-sustaining bed and breakfast,” John Daamen said, pointing to the so-called Wedding Cake House next door.

“Something like this might have saved the Wedding Cake House,” he said. “Something like this can go a long way to preserving so many beautiful homes in Kennebunk, and all of our property values besides.”

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