EASTPORT, Maine — If an elderly Eastport resident needs a hand bringing in winter firewood, a call to Shead High School will bring a crew to help.
If a business owner can’t get his business shoveled out after a storm, The Boat School students often will show up.
Need help with a benefit supper? A dozen volunteers will pitch in.
This can-do spirit of cooperation permeates Eastport — from the smallest children at the elementary school to Main Street to City Hall.
A small group of local government, school and business leaders gathered at City Hall on Monday to discuss how that positive attitude is helping the island community turn the economic tide.
Almost $20 million in private and public investments have flooded Eastport in just the year — for everything from ocean power development to port expansion, the establishment of a parts warehouse and the creation of simple gardens.
“Washington County is one community with shared problems,” said City Manager Jon Southern, who organized Monday’s gathering. “But, in my opinion, Eastport is the most progressive because it represents all the area communities.”
Southern said Eastport is now taking the “show, don’t tell” attitude toward economic recovery.
“Eastport is unified in creating a place for businesses and development to thrive and therefore giving our children a place to come home to,” Southern said.
A school board member with a Texas drawl, a city manager with a British accent and a Boat School advocate whose words are weighted with a heavy French rhythm were joined Monday in expressing their opinion that diversity works here.
“We have gotten past the days of ‘us versus them,’ and now speak as ‘we,’” board member David Gholson added.
As hard times struck, Eastport began searching for ways to reinvent itself from a sardine processing and fishing center. Its growing population of artists and its natural seaside beauty drew tourists, but the community needed to look beyond seasonal employment for its children.
City organizers turned to The Boat School, the strength of Eastport’s school system and an older population with vast experience to help the city recover.
Of the seven local leaders who gathered Monday, all said they believed the city is on the edge of turning itself around.
“People are noticing what is happening here,” said Principal Paul Theriault of Shead High School in Eastport. “The tide is turning.”
“We are not just a dying fishing community,” City Manager John Southern added. “We are taking an innovative approach to solve our common problems and pursue common goals.”
A major goal, the group agreed, is providing educational opportunities and business development that will keep the children of the Eastport area from leaving.
“The biggest export Down East is our kids,” Southern said. “We need to link the schools with the community if we are going to rebuild this county. It all starts within the schools.”
Shead High School in Eastport has 120 students — 81 of whom are tuitioned from surrounding communities of Dennysville, Edmunds, Pembroke, Perry, Pleasant Point and Robbinston.
“We are a destination high school, just like Eastport is a destination city,” Theriault said. He said connecting the students with the future job opportunities that will be available Down East is key.
Already Theriault has seen stabilization in high school staff over the past few years. “There is very little turnover,” he said. “Teachers love it here. It is an incredibly safe, nurturing environment.”
Theriault said Shead High School also has links with The Boat School, city government, and with the elementary school across the street from its front door.
Many of the courses at Shead focus on alternative energy, mathematics, literacy and other skills the next generation of workers will need in the Eastport area — all provided by a high school that has the lowest per-pupil cost in the state.
At The Boat School, the focus has expanded beyond building only fishing vessels. The boats are built from the same composite materials that windmill blades are constructed from, said Victor Voisine, a representative of the school. “People think of us as a wooden boat school but with composites, we have the technology to build those wind blades right here.”
Voisine said eight students graduated from The Boat School last spring and every one had a job — in Maine — before leaving school.
“As we develop the city’s grant for a manufacturing facility to serve the hydropower industry, it will be interesting to see how we can link that to The Boat School,” Southern said. “We will have $1 million in composite manufacturing machinery in that mill.”
Shead is also a vital partner with the city, Theriault said. “Anytime we bring anyone on to this island, it is a plus for Eastport,” he said. A recent college fair brought 20 presenters to Shead and Theriault said many of them stayed overnight.
“We are also partners with the Eastport Arts Center and we hope to build even more on that,” he said.
Board member Gholson said that a large number of creative people in the Eastport area — artists, crafters, writers and tradespeople — are partners and advocates with the city.
“It is a circle. It is all a circle,” Gholson said. “We have found that we don’t have to agree on everything to get the job done. We just have to be committed to working together.”
“Friendships, relationships, new ideas — they all begin at the schools,” Southern said.
Theriault said that the negative attitude that permeates some of Washington County’s communities isn’t as evident in Eastport and that positivity grows positivity.
“Even the students are talking more positively about the area,” Theriault said.
Southern said Eastport doesn’t just want its young people to stay and build a life on the island — it needs them to.
“We are on our last generation of firefighters,” he said. “It’s getting hard to find public works employees and the average age of applicants is mid-50s. If we lose our kids, we lose our work force. We then lose our stores, our services. It’s a ripple effect.”
Meg McGarvey, Eastport school board member, said that although it might be important for children to leave the area, further their education and explore options, Eastport wants them to come back.
“We need to create an environment that they will desire to come home to and become our leaders, our entrepreneurs,” she said.