BETHEL — Two years ago, a small sign denoting Greenwood as the “birthplace of Leon Leonwood Bean” was posted along Route 26 in the little village down the road from Sunday River. A month ago, L.L. Bean started offering adventure classes at the ski resort as well as at a Greenwood pond. And in this mountain town, some locals are leery.
L.L. Bean has extended its Outdoors Discovery School to this satellite location, offering instruction in archery, fly casting and paddle boarding, the latter at Round Pond in Greenwood.
The partnership between L.L. Bean and the Sunday River ski area began as a way to provide outdoor activities to hundreds of guests staying at the Grand Summit Hotel for the Gordon Research Conference taking place there this summer.
“They are an international scientific conference group that is at Sunday River for 10 weeks this summer and involves doctors and scientists from all over the world, most who have never been to Maine before,” said Sunday River spokeswoman Darcy Morse. “Initially we were working with L.L. Bean to offer these clinics and classes to this group as an added amenity, but decided to open it up to the general public, given how smoothly things were going.”
But to those who make livelihood here, the company’s move into their remote outdoor destination amounts to a big-box store setting up shop.
“How will L.L. Bean incorporate themselves into the community?” asked Leigh Breidenbach, manager at the new Sport Thoma shop in Bethel. “If they’re coming in and not hiring local guides, I guess that will affect people’s lives.”
Fishing guide Luke Gray at Locke Mountain Guide Service was apprehensive as well.
“It didn’t surprise me that they’d use their instructors from in-house. What did surprise me was they didn’t take the next step, and contact local guides to offer a list if clients want to take the next step, and go out fishing,” Gray said. “I’m fairly busy. But I wouldn’t say there is plenty of business. Nobody in this town would say they’re turning business away.”
L.L. Bean, however, said it has no intention of sending fishing guides from Freeport to Bethel to aid fly fishermen on rivers and lakes there.
“That will not happen,” said L.L. Bean spokesman Mac McKeever.
McKeever said the company’s plan at Sunday River is to offer new programs that are not being offered in the region. Establishing an L.L. Bean retail store near the ski resort, like those in Freeport, Bangor and Ellsworth, has not been discussed, he said.
What L.L. Bean’s reach to the mountains means, McKeever said, is a furthering of the company’s overarching mission expressed in its free demo days at its Freeport retail store, at its Outdoor Discovery School on the coast there, and at other adventure courses given elsewhere in the country.
“Really for us it’s been, throughout our history, about empowering people to get outdoors,” McKeever said. “This goes back to L.L.’s day in Greenwood, just 16 miles from there. One of the things he was known for was his incredible passion for the outdoors, and he was known to have an acute interest in sharing that with friends, family and customers.”
At a fly casting course at Sunday River’s Grand Summit Hotel on Tuesday, the King family from Cincinnati learned the basics. Three teenage boys with their parents learned the four-point cast, the roll cast and false cast from L.L. Bean instructor Stuart Hickey on the hotel lawn.
Sunday River was a new stop on the Kings’ fourth trip to Maine. They went to Freeport to take classes at the Outdoor Discovery School last week. They enjoyed paddling sea kayaks, learning to trap shoot and taking archery lessons. When they asked for one more class they were directed to Newry, an hour and a half north, and they went.
“We love Maine. Since we first came here when Tyler (age 15) was born and we saw the Outdoor Discovery School, we knew we wanted to do this,” said Jennifer King. “L.L. Bean is a classic outdoor shop. When our kids were old enough, we decided it was time to do these adventures. The mountains here are gorgeous. I think we’ll be back.”
McKeever said offering these unique programs, L.L. Bean will bring new tourists like the Kings to Bethel.
“The rising tide raises all ships,” McKeever said. “The more people we can get outdoors the more people who will ultimately come to appreciate the outdoors, and the more people who will learn how precious a resource the natural world is.”
Still, there is uncertainity in the mountain region about how the relationship between L.L. Bean and local businesses will pan out.
Unlike some ski destinations, Newry, where Sunday River is located, and nearby Bethel enjoy a buzz of activity in the summer. Billed by the Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce as “Maine’s most beautiful mountain village,” Bethel is home to many fishing and hunting guides, as well as four nearby campgrounds.
“Most businesses when you survey them, say they make more in the summer and fall than the winter, with the exception of Sunday River,” said Robin Zinchuk, the chamber’s director for 28 years. “(The late fishing guide) Rocky Freda and I worked to bring state biologists here to clean up the Upper Androscoggin River and get more stocking. Sun Valley Sports, they’re like the granddaddy of fly fishing and float boats in the area. I don’t want to see anything hurt them. I’m sure the intent is not to hurt, but it could be an unintended consequence.”
As kayakers from the Bethel Outdoor Center paddled into the humid summer heat Tuesday, Lisa Freda at Sun Valley Sports helped a fly fisherman with a southern accent. Freda would not comment on the L.L. Bean presence in the area, but was not excited to see the big green name in town.
“I was told they were supposed to just cater to the Gordon Research Institute,” Freda said. “Now they’re opening it up to the public.”