April 04, 2020

Belfast bolstered by New Year’s gala > Inns, motels packed for inaugural festival

BELFAST — People were few and traffic sparse in this city on New Year’s Day, hardly reflecting the bustle and electricity of the night before.

Hundreds of people descended upon downtown Belfast from 3 p.m. to midnight for New Year’s by the Bay, a festival of the performing arts. And though the wind blew cruelly cold from the harbor at midnight, dozens of onlookers stood beside the water for the fireworks that greeted 1998. The less hearty and less suitably dressed sat in their cars for the display.

The influx of revelers filled many of the city’s motels, hotels and bed-and-breakfasts. The Belfast Harbor Inn on Route 1 reported filling 53 of its 60 rooms, a large increase over last year’s occupancy.

The Comfort Inn on Route 1 filled all of its 52 rooms. “We don’t fill in December usually,” said the inn’s desk clerk Thursday morning. “We turned a lot of people away.”

“We had a full house last night,” said Marla Stickle, owner of The Alden House on Church Street. “Except for one couple from Massachusetts, everyone was here for New Year’s by the Bay. She said she had four couples from the Mount Desert Island area and one couple from Bangor.

Cathy Heffentrager, owner of the Jeweled Turret Inn on Pearl Street, said all seven of her rooms were rented for the evening. “From our perspective, the night was a huge success,” she said. She added that her guests were elated with the performances they saw on New Year’s Eve. “We already have people booking rooms for next year,” she said. Her guests were from throughout Maine, from Farmington to Dover-Foxcroft.

Although John Lebowitz’s Bay Meadows Inn on Northport Avenue closes for the winter season, he fielded many more calls during the past few weeks than he had during the same period in past years. Some of those calls were from people from as close as Ellsworth and Bangor.

Ron Kresge, owner of The Thomas Pitcher House on Franklin Street, had guests from Portland, Yarmouth and Plymouth, who all came to spend the evening at New Year’s by the Bay.

Portland holds its own First Night-type event on New Year’s Eve, but the Portland couple who stayed at the Pitcher House wanted to attend a cultural gala that was smaller and a bit more unpredictable, Kresge said.

“They were all overwhelmed by the performances,” he said.

The influx of overnight visitors did not, however, appear to trickle into neighboring Searsport, just five miles to the northeast. Bed-and-breakfast owners and motel owners there said the evening was much like New Year’s Eves of the past — slow.

An exact count of how many people attended the performances won’t be completed until organizers collect the unsold buttons that were available at stores in a four-county area. However, according to event coordinator Jennifer Hill, organizers got back about 300 evaluations that were filled out during the evening, one per family. According to the number of family members listed on each form, those evaluations represent about 900 people, Hill said.

Retail outlets in the city ran out of buttons early in the evening and organizers then started giving out tickets. About 700 of those were sold.

Once organizers collect the unsold buttons, they plan to sell them to anyone who didn’t get to buy one on New Year’s Eve, Hill said, adding that they could be a collector’s item some day. The proceeds of those sales will be given to the soup kitchen in Belfast, she said.

Hill said the downtown restaurants were extremely busy and that some visitors complained to organizers that they couldn’t get in anywhere to eat. Some restaurants ran out of some menu items, she said. “I think most people didn’t conceive the scope of this event before it happened,” she said.

Organizers are planning a potluck dinner for the public on Sunday, Jan. 11, to get feedback about what went right and wrong with the event.

Belfast police reported no incidents of unruly behavior during the evening or night and made one arrest for operating while under the influence.

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