Heather Loeber’s decision to make a major life change in 2016 brought the former horse trainer and rural homesteader to Portland, where she and her family bought a condominium on India Street, a booming neighborhood experiencing a transition of its own.

The move turned out to be the perfect opportunity for the 47-year-old to live her longtime dream of owning a hostel, an affordable overnight accommodation that is popular in Europe. Hostels, which have struggled to get a foothold in the U.S., offer communal lodging as well as private or semi-private rooms.

When Black Elephant Hostel opens this summer at 33 Hampshire St., it will be the first hostel in Portland and one of the few in Maine. It comes at a time when pricey hotels are popping up all over the peninsula, including in the India Street neighborhood where Loeber is putting the finishing touches on her hostel.

From the psychedelic wallpaper to the themed rooms and Vampire Bathroom, Heather Loeber hopes her Black Elephant Hostel is an attraction in itself rather than just being a place to stay. Staff photos by Derek Davis

Loeber hopes her more humble lodging option will help open Portland to younger people who can’t afford expensive hotel rooms and who want to experience Maine’s largest city with fellow travelers.

“I think Portland has probably needed a hostel for a long time,” Loeber said, noting that she spent $400 for a room in Portland one night while looking for a place to live. She said a bunk at her hostel will cost $40 a night and a double room, with locking door, will cost only $90.

“I think (hotel prices are) closing the city off to a lot of people that should be able to explore it,” she said. “There are a lot of people who work here and have friends who would love to come visit, and putting them up in their apartment isn’t going to work. And inviting them into a city where they have to spend $400 a night doesn’t work either. So this would be a great solution for that.”

FILLING A MUCH-NEEDED NICHE

The hostel will be open to people of all ages, although hostels typically cater to younger travelers who are on tight budgets, are willing to share spaces and like the opportunity to interact with others passing through a city.

Portland changed its zoning and land use code to allow hostels in 2011, but this is the first project to come to fruition. There are only four other hostels in Maine, mostly in rural areas like Deer Isle, Millinocket and Andover, according to the Maine Office of Tourism website, visitmaine.com.

Robert Witkowski, creative director and media relations manager for Visit Portland, a tourism group for Greater Portland, said the addition of a hostel is “very exciting” and is filling a much-needed niche in the market.

“Black Elephant offers affordable accommodations, making the downtown experience possible for all ages and budgets,” Witkowski said. “Hostels worldwide often attract young, budget-conscious travelers looking to experience life as a local.”

The hostel will be entering an urban market that already is teeming with competition from short-term rentals like Airbnbs, which have been cutting into hotel rates and hostel revenues worldwide. Locally, Airbnbs have been the subject of debate and new regulations. While short-term rentals can be more affordable than hotels in some cases, units downtown still cost more than $100 a night.

So Loeber thinks she can compete with that price, while offering a completely different experience.

“With Airbnb, you really don’t know what you’re gonna get,” she said. “It is a little bit uncomfortable sometimes trying to be respectful. You know what the rules are here. You don’t feel like you’re invading someone else’s space. You’re not holding their coffee mug in the morning going, ‘Oh, my God, what if I break this?’ ”

PLAYFUL DESIGN, VAMPIRE BATHROOM

The four-story Black Elephant Hostel, at Hampshire and Newbury streets, will have 12 rooms and 12 bathrooms and can accommodate 54 guests, Loeber said. The first floor will mostly be communal space, including a shared kitchen and a lounge with a couch, gas fireplace and book nook. There are also plans to build an outdoor garden area with a pingpong table. Lockers will be available for people renting bunks so they can safely store their gear.

Trey Turcotte installs vinyl plank flooring in one of the dorm rooms.
Staff photo by Derek Davis

Although guests will be looking to experience Portland, Loeber is doing what she can to make staying at the hostel a trip. In a way, the decor is an outward reflection of Loeber, who on a recent Thursday afternoon wore blue hair, a bright purple shirt, floral patterned pants and a black pair of Converse Chucks.

Walking through the narrow, winding hallways bustling with builders, Loeber described her vision – from the chalkboard paint that will allow guests to write on some of the walls to the psychedelic wallpaper that will line the corridors. Each room will have a theme and vibe set primarily by the wallpaper on the ceilings.

Several of the rooms will be named in honor of the Beastie Boys, one of Loeber’s favorite bands. The “Hey Ladies” room will sleep up to eight women. Its signature is the butterfly wallpapered ceiling. And the “Professor Booty” will sleep eight men and has graffiti wallpaper on the ceiling. Other rooms will be inspired by the musician Beck and the film director Wes Anderson.

On the fourth floor, the Vampire Bathroom awaits the weary traveler. For an additional cost, guests can rent the private clawfoot bathtub and can soak themselves in bath salts (no – not the illicit kind).

ADHERING TO CITY REGULATIONS

Loeber said she is not surprised that it took so long for Portland to get its first hostel. Although she declined to say what the project is costing, she estimated that she had spent $100,000 before she even knew whether the concept would work.

“There are so many rules in this city that you have to comply with,” she said.

For starters, hostels must have fire sprinklers throughout the building and a fire suppression hood in the kitchen. Each room needs to have its own bathroom.

And then there is the city’s housing replacement ordinance, which charges fees for lost housing units. That rule only kicks in when three or more units are removed. Loeber said she is keeping two apartments in the building, although they will be reduced in size to studios, so she won’t have to pay the $68,000 fee for each lost unit.

Loeber said she is optimistic about meeting her target opening date of June, even though much work remains.

“It’s the first hostel and I want to get it started right,” she said.