CAPE ELIZABETH – The spectacular views, historic lighthouse and cliff trails remain free to visitors.

But if you have some cash to spend while you’re at Fort Williams Park, you now can upgrade your trip with a lobster roll, kielbasa or even a can of Maine Root soda.

For the first time since the town bought the historic park in 1964, food and beverage vendors are offering their goods on a daily basis inside the gates. Until this summer, vendors had been allowed only for special occasions such as the Fourth of July celebration.

Town councilors voted this spring to sell permits to five vendors. Some backed the idea because they want to help the park become more financially self-sustaining. Others simply thought some food and drink would add to the experience on the 90-acre grounds.

It’s considered a pilot program and will be reviewed this fall so councilors can decide whether to give the vendors the boot, keep them or add more next year.

Two of the vendors — Gordo’s Lobster Cakes and Frank’s Franks — are allowed at designated spots from May 1 to Aug. 31. Two others — Atlantic Cookie Co. and Dory Dogs — have the spots from Sept. 1 to Oct. 31. A fifth vendor, Bite Into Maine, has the one full-season license, from May 1 to Oct. 31.

“We’re honored to be here,” said Sarah Sutton, who runs Bite Into Maine with her husband, Karl.

Their 6-foot by 10-foot aluminum trailer occupies a spot on a grassy bluff overlooking the harbor and Portland Head Light. All of the Suttons’ offerings — including six styles of lobster rolls — are Maine-made, which they say gave them a boost in the selection process.

“Things have been going really well. Feedback has been very positive, from locals and from tourists,” said Sarah Sutton.

The town received a total of $11,000 in permit fees from the five vendors, who were chosen from a field of 14 applicants.

Annually, the park costs Cape Elizabeth about $300,000, which includes maintenance and capital improvement spending. About $80,000 is covered by revenue generated at the park, such as fees for use of the picnic shelter, gazebo and bandstand.

While the revenue from the vendors represents a small fraction of the annual cost of maintaining and improving the park, supporters of the program say it’s a revenue source that doesn’t fundamentally change the charm and character of the park.

Other ideas for generating revenue have been adopted in the past few years, including a $25,000 fee for hosting the annual TD Bank Beach to Beacon road race.

“All of these smaller things add up,” said Town Manager Michael McGovern.

Portland Head Light, which was first lit in 1791, is among the most photographed lighthouses in the world. Also on the grounds are the remains of the Goddard Mansion and military fortifications that were built more than a century ago. Annual estimates of visitors range up to more than 1 million, but the town doesn’t keep an official count.

The town bought Fort Williams from the federal government in 1964 for $200,000 and designated it as a park in 1979. The idea of charging parking or entry fees has cropped up several times since the 1960s because property taxes have provided most of the funding for park operations.

Various town councils have asked the Fort Williams Advisory Commission to recommend ideas for making the park financially self-sustaining. Repeatedly, the commission has told the council that charging for parking or admission are the only options that would generate large amounts of money.

But proposals to implement such fees have been rejected by residents who want the park to remain free. Voters shot down a plan for parking fees in an advisory referendum in June 2010 and rejected a different parking fee plan in 2006.

The issue of fees resurfaced this year, as the commission advised the council to charge fees for tour buses and trolleys that bring visitors to the park. Citing the past votes, councilors decided Monday to table the suggestion.

On Thursday, Wendy Lawrence and her friend Kay Webster drove to Cape Elizabeth from their homes in the suburbs of Boston. They sat at a picnic table and enjoyed lunch from Bite Into Maine.

“We were walking around for a while and I didn’t even notice (the vendors) until she suggested we get something to eat,” Lawrence said.

“I think they fit in pretty well. It’s a big park,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to see a dozen trailers, but it’s nice to have a few of them.”

Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at:

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