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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

TV Crews, Souvenirs and Vodka Hit Maine

MTA Secret Service vessel patrolling the waters around Walker's Point, where Putin and Bush will meet on Sunday.
KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine -- For a town that prides itself on detached amusement to presidential visits, Vladimir Putin's arrival this Sunday has created quite a stir.

Local businesses are stocking up on Russian-themed merchandise, tourists are flocking to the summer home of former U.S. President George Bush for a last glimpse before road blocks go up, and visitors and residents alike are hoping that the town's quiet, New England charm will be a much-needed tonic for recent tensions between the two countries.

Although Putin's two-day visit with U.S. President George W. Bush only begins Sunday, preparations were under way all week. On Tuesday, helicopters -- as many as four at a time, several beachgoers said -- could be seen circling overhead, and a local ABC television reporter was broadcasting live from the road just before Walker's Point, where the Bush family compound looks out over the Atlantic from a rocky outcrop.

"We've been here 30 years, and I can't think of a visit that's created this much energy," said Brian Bartley, manager of Bartley's Dockside Restaurant, which has placed a blackboard outside reading, "Kennebunkport is Putin on the Ritz," a play on Irving Berlin's 1929 hit.

Bartley's mother, Dorothy, who owns the restaurant, eagerly showed off a collection of photographs and signed memorabilia from past presidential visits. For Putin's stay she ordered several bottles of the Russian vodka Imperia, which she said customers have called "very smooth."

Scott Rose / MT
Dorothy Bartley standing with a bottle of Imperia vodka at her restaurant.
Up the street, souvenir shop Saxony Imports placed a special order for miniature Russian flags for the visit. Several Russians had already been in the store buying magnets, T-shirts and postcards, employee Heather McVane said.

Local artist Kathryn Morris Trainor even created an impressionistic painting called "Friendly Flags," showing the two countries' flags matted side by side above a plaque commemorating the weekend talks. She said she hoped to give it to Walker's Point or perhaps even send it home with Putin.

Tourists, too, seemed caught up in the excitement. One couple stood along the road overlooking Walker's Point as their young son leaned over a fence to peer through binoculars at the compound. "We heard Putin was coming, but really our son made us come," said his mother, gesturing to a Bush action figure lying in their car's back seat. "He's a big fan," she added.

The Bush compound on Walker's Point, which the family has owned since 1901, is used throughout the summer by the elder Bush, whose year-round residence is in Houston, said Jim Appleby, a spokesman for Bush. The former president will be playing host for Putin's stay, but the White House is overseeing all the formal preparations, Appleby said. In the past, not all visiting foreign leaders have stayed overnight, although Putin is expected to do so, he said.

Scott Rose / MT
McCurdy expressed hope for a resolution to the missile defense dispute.
This will be the first meeting with a head of state that the younger Bush has held at the residence, although his father has had a number of world leaders as guests, including Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev last September.

Kennebunkport police chief Joseph Bruni said he was looking forward to seeing the techniques used by Putin's security detail. "It's intriguing to not only have the president in town, but for us law enforcement officers also to have the security staff here. It's always interesting to see how other countries handle their security," Bruni said.

He said he could not go into details about the security preparations other that to say he was working closely with the U.S. Secret Service and that the security would be "nothing like" what it was for Nazarbayev.

The head of the Secret Service's local field office was not immediately available for comment.

On the beach, Eric Knowlton expressed concern about the tensions with Russia. "As someone who grew up during Vietnam, though, I'm more concerned about what's going on in Iraq," said Knowlton, looking out at the ocean from under his beach umbrella. "The summit is great, but there are bigger questions on the horizon."

Lifeguard Ken Thompson said he had heard that Putin was coming, but not much else. "I don't know why. Is it a summit? Is he still in charge of Russia? He is, isn't he?" Thompson said. His sister Caylie, also a lifeguard, added that she had seen about six security boats patrolling along the coast Tuesday.

Richard Stockwell, who lives just up Ocean Avenue from Walker's Point and goes to church with the Bushes, said locals made too much of the security measures. He said people who live within blocked-off areas are allowed through, and that he thought the visits were great for the town.

Although the visit has garnered a largely positive reaction here, at least two local groups are planning demonstrations over Iraq and Chechnya.

"The two presidents are acting like tsars with their imperialist agendas. They have invaded these small, oil-rich Muslim countries," said Jamilla El-Shafei, organizer of a protest planned for Sunday afternoon.

Barry Rodrigue, an assistant professor at the University of Southern Maine and an organizer of the American-Caucasus Solidarity Group, said he and several students would distribute information about the plight of residents of the Caucasus on Sunday and Monday. The group has sent winter clothing and books to the region and is currently working on a project to start a brick factory to help rebuild Chechnya.

"We're not so much protesting as seeking to distribute information. We're seeking cooperative change and the assistance of the Russian government," Rodrigue said.

He added that a request to meet with Putin and Bush this weekend had been declined.

Both Rodrigue and El-Shafei said the police had been very helpful. "I was at the G8 protests in St. Petersburg, and things will be much different here," Rodrigue said.

Harbor master Lee McCurdy offered his thoughts while waiting for the last lobster boat to bring in its catch Wednesday afternoon. He said he hoped Putin's visit would resolve a dispute over U.S. plans for a missile defense shield in Central Europe, but predicted it would be beneficial no matter what happened. "Just as long as we're all getting along. He should come down every summer."