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High prices: an olympic-sized ripoff?

"Buy, sell, trade!" Like a pitchman at a carnival, Dick Matheson of Portland, Maine, stands in a four-foot square booth on Main Street here, hawking hockey pucks, Olympic tickets, and pins -- especially pins.

"Take a look," he practically dares passers-by as he throws out his chest with its complement of 35 or more Winter Olympics-related pins tacked on his brown sweater.

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"Fifteen dollars for the balloon pin," he fairly snorts to two eager young customers, who find the price too high and quickly move on in the cold night air.

Such displays of "entrepreneurial skill" (Mr. Matheson expects to turn a "pretty penny" by the end of the Games from trading pins alone) are entertaining to say the least. But increasingly many visitors are responding with a jaundiced eye and a hot temper.

Many restaurants have doubled and tripled their menu prices. Hot dogs are worth their weight in steak, selling sometimes for over $2 apiece.

The Country Kitchen on Main Street, a few paces from hwere Mr. Matheson hawks his wares, now charges $12.95 for a roast beef dinner.Before the Olympics it was unusual compared to those in big cities. But others have been left with a bad taste in their mouths and a feeling of being downright cheated.

More important, local people, many of whom live on modest incomes, often find the high prices make it impossible to shop in their own hometown.

"I have to go to Plattsburgh to do my shopping," said a young woman who was working in one of the stores. Plattsburgh is more than 30 miles away.

Even he local McDonalds restaurant, usually a source of an inexpensive meal, is not selling its less-expensive regular-sized hamburgers, more-expensive "Big Macs." Even the small order of french fries has been eliminated -- it has to be a more-expensive large order or nothing.

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A spokesman for McDonalds' general offices in Chicago defended the franchise, citing "logistical problems" for the small restaurant dealing with huge crowds.

"They figure they have a captive audience," said Bob Welch, a salesman who supplies wholesale food to many area restaurants. "Many of the owners feel that since they've had a bad season because of lack of snow, they had better make up for it now."

Aileen Geiling, who owns the Deer's Head Inn in Elizabethtown here, said "I don't consider it a royal ripoff to pay $100 a night for a room. If you can't pay the price, you shouldn't go to the Olympics." However, she said, her inn "has merely doubled its normal prices," with the top price $75 a night.

Of course, the entrepreneurial game can often backfire, as several local huckstrs have found out to their dismay. One man bought a block of 800 hockey tickets and just before game time was selling them for a fraction of their original cost. The tickets were for the first night of games, Feb. 12; many visitors did not begin streaming in until the official opening day Feb. 13.

Vince Nelson, a restaurant manager from SEattle, said he could buy the same dinner in Seattle for $3.75 that he paid $17 for in Lake Placid. "Seattle wouldn't have overcharged," he said, "but that's life."

Mr. Nelson and others say, moreover, that this is a "once-in-a lifetime experience" and that they don't mind spending top dollar.


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