A dark-horse candidate has captured a new 10-year contract to provide carriage tours in Acadia National Park, leaving the former operator shocked and frustrated about losing the business after many years.
The National Park Service’s regional director in Philadelphia awarded the concession contract for Wildwood Stables to a company headed by two of the prior operator’s former employees, Kari Goraj, and her husband, James Bartick, of Orland.
The NPS rejected a bid from Carriages of Acadia, led by president Michael E. Carpenter, former state attorney general and state senator from Houlton, which held the contract for the narrated carriage tours in Acadia for 15 years, including several extensions totaling five years. The stable operation and carriage rides had about $850,000 in sales in a recent year, according to an NPS report on the business opportunity for Wildwood Stables.
In an interview, Carpenter called it a “real kick in the gut” to lose the concession to old friends and employees after all the blood, sweat and tears that he and his daughter, Emily Carpenter, who served as general manager, put into the business. “I don’t know how it happened,” he said. “I was stunned.”
Longtime Acadia carriage tours operator criticizes NPS decision
Carpenter disputed the decision by NPS in Philadelphia to select a new operator for horse-drawn carriage rides on carriage roads in Acadia. The NPS declined comment on his criticisms.
Carpenter compared the bid award for Wildwood Stables to a controversial 2013 decision by the NPS to select New Mexico-based Dawnland LLC to operate the Jordan Pond House and several retail shops over a Bar Harbor-based organization that ran the historic restaurant and shops for many years.
Carpenter said he challenged the experience of Goraj and Bartick in running a business like Wildwood Stables. He said it’s a complicated operation, with issues such as horses coming up lame, difficulty hiring and retaining employees for the season and providing on site housing for employees.
The NPS is also more than tripling its franchise fee for Wildwood Stables and that could make it more difficult to make money, he added.
Carpenter said his bid was also hurt because the NPS did not require business references, as he said it did when he initially won the pact for Wildwood Stables.
New concessioner excited to take reins for Acadia carriage tours
The new concessioner will continue a tradition on Acadia’s carriage roads that goes back to Acadia co-founder John D. Rockefeller Jr., a talented equestrian who grew up with horses and drove carriages in the national park and on his family’s estate in Seal Harbor near Wildwood Stables. Rockefeller financed construction of the 45 miles of carriage roads in Acadia between 1913 and 1940.
Asked in an interview how she felt about winning the contract, Goraj said, “We’re so excited. We’ve been trying for years. We’re just so excited.”
She also expressed surprise at being chosen to run Wildwoods Stables. They received a phone call informing them about the contract win, and only recently received an NPS contract to sign, she said.
“At first we were like, ‘Oh did that really happen? Did that really happen?” Now, we actually have a hard copy we have to sign,” she said in an interview on Jan. 5.
Asked about their experience with horses, Goraj said she was a full-time carriage driver and tour guide for the former concessioner from August of 2014 through the 2018 season. She said she has worked with horses for 31 years including giving riding lessons and driving carriages.
She said she and Bartick have been riding and driving horses and hiking in Acadia for more than 30 years. Bartick, who she said worked part-time as a driver and tour guide for the Carpenters on weekends and holidays in 2018, has been art director at Brooklin-based WoodenBoat Magazine since 1994, according to his LinkedIn profile.
Goraj is CEO of the new concessioner, Acadia by Carriage, LLC, and Bartick is COO. According to Goraj, the Wildwood Stables operation will remain basically the same, except that her company will offer what would be the business’s first-ever online reservation system for carriage tours in Acadia and other services.
Online reservations for carriage rides, campsites, stables promised
Goraj said her company will overcome the poor internet and cell service at Wildwood Stables by using satellite internet. The online reservations should be a big help, she said. “I actually think it is going to work just fine,” she said.
Carpenter said Wildwood Stables is in a dead zone for internet and cell service. He acknowledged that his company’s contract with the NPS called for creating an online reservation system for all services, but the company did not establish online reservations and that was “always a bit of a sore point” with Acadia National Park, he said.
In 2023, Carpenter said his company did provide satellite cell service and internet service for workers at Wildwood via Starlink.
The NPS evaluated the operation at Wildwood Stables several times a year, and provided excellent reviews, Carpenter said. Acadia National Park praised Carpenter’s company in a Dec. 8 press release announcing the new operator, saying Carriages of Acadia “provided outstanding service” since 2009.
Carpenter said that his criticisms are directed at the Philadelphia office, not Acadia National Park. He said another problem with the selection process was that Acadia National Park was largely frozen out of the “very secretive” review.
Limited role for Acadia National Park in selecting new operator
Officials at Acadia National Park said the winning bid was selected based on criteria in the prospectus for the contract. The NPS’s main selection factors included an applicant’s background, experience and past performance at providing the same or similar services, in addition to the applicant’s plans for providing visitor services at reasonable rates and protecting and preserving park resources.
John T. Kelly, management assistant at Acadia National Park, wrote in an email that the NPS commercial services office in Philadelphia convened a panel of NPS subject matter experts to review all proposals to operate Wildwood Stables.
During the review process, certain Acadia National Park staff provided park-specific answers to questions from the panel. Acadia National Park staff did not otherwise participate in the evaluation process, Kelly wrote.
“The selection of an NPS concessioner is a highly confidential process,” Kelly added. “The intent behind the confidentiality is to increase competition and improve the services offered to visitors. For this reason, we do not publicly identify the names of bidders or number of bids received.”
The NPS did release the prospectus online that helped guide its decision.
Since expiration of his original 10-year agreement in 2018, Carpenter said his company accommodated the NPS and agreed to three separate contract extensions but that “counted for nothing” in the awarding of the new contract.
Phone number available for reservations and questions
Goraj, who lives with Bartick on a 7-acre, solar-powered farm with horses, said she only recently received the final contract from the NPS and was still reviewing it.
The online reservation system will be offered at www.acadiabycarriage.com and should be ready in a few weeks. People will be able to book stalls, campsites and carriage tours, she said.
In the meantime, people can call 207-600-7204 to make reservations and can email at email@example.com to ask questions. When the stables open for the season on May 25, reservations can also be made in person at Wildwood, she said.
Wildwood Stables has 34 stalls for daily rentals in three barns and also nine RV campsites. There are no horse rentals in Acadia but people are allowed to bring their own horses and ride them on the carriage roads.
The campsites at Wildwood Stables can be rented between Memorial Day and Indigenous Peoples Day for no more than 14 consecutive days, she said. That’s a new cap on length of stay at a campsite, she said.
Goraj said she also plans to coordinate the beginning and end of the carriage tours in Acadia with the schedule of the Island Explorer, the park’s fare-free shuttle that stops at Wildwood Stables. If you get off the bus at the stables, for example, you will be able to get on a carriage tour within a half hour, she said.
A lot of money was at stake in the bidding for the contract.
NPS hikes fees paid by concessioner of Acadia carriage tours
Wildwood Stables, located off the Park Loop Road near Jordan Pond, generated $845,087 in sales during 2022 season including $741,883 from the carriage tours. Total sales rose about 44 percent since 2017, according to a revenue breakdown from the National Park Service.
Fees for an adult on a 1-hour tour rose 170 percent from $24 in 2018 to $65 in 2019. The carriage tours in Acadia carried 9,783 passengers on 1,674 trips, or about 6 riders per trip in 2022.
In awarding the new contract, the National Park Service required a minimum franchise fee of 5 percent of annual gross revenues up to $250,000 and 12 percent of revenues exceeding $250,000, according to the proposal package. Under Carpenter’s contract, the franchise fee was 1 percent up to $500,000 and 6 percent above $500,000 for each of the last three years, he said.
With the new minimum franchise fee, if sales were $800,000, the NPS would collect $78,500 as a franchise fee, more than triple the old fee of $23,000.
In addition to the franchise fee, the NPS contract requires the concessioner to provide all horses and equipment.
The timing of NPS’s awarding of the contract came at a bad time, Carpenter said, stranding his company with 25 horses, as well as carriages and other equipment, to sell at the worst time of year.
“You don’t sell horses in the middle of the winter,” he said, adding that he is currently paying to board the horses.
Carpenter said he has until May 8 to move four buildings including bunkhouses and a cook shack for employees.
Goraj, the new concessioner, said she plans on starting with eight teams, or a total of 16 horses to pull carriages and eventually progress to 12 teams or 24 horses.
Goraj said she appreciates that the carriage roads are multi-use, often used by hikers, dog walkers and bike riders including Class 1 e-bikes.
“Being horse people, being in Acadia all the time, I think we saw everything, not just carriage tours,” she said. “We’ve enjoyed every aspect of Acadia. We’ve hiked all the mountains. We have driven our horses on any of the roads we are allowed on. We have walked them.”
“We have an understanding and plus, we live a green life. We live on a solar farm and we think about the environment quite a bit. I just like to think we have seen just about everything.”
She said she wants Wildwood Stables to be a pleasant experience for everyone involved. “It’s about all of us, not just about the horses,” she said.