Every time I sit with my grandmother in her island home in midcoast Maine, she tells me stories: stories of dramatic weather, and of fishing and of her father, my great-grandfather, an island fisherman. Her memories are steeped in island traditions and history where the land, water and weather all have starring roles.
There are 15 year-round islands in the Gulf of Maine. Each has a distinct community, but they all have similar economic development challenges. Historically, island economies have been resource-based with fishing serving as the main occupation for residents. Over the years, however, this has changed. With the advent of improved telecommunications to Maine islands and the necessity to think creatively about how to make a living on an island, more and more small businesses are thriving on the islands of Maine.
As Mary Terry, community development director for the Island Institute says, “Islanders are exploring ways to create valued-added products that can be exported and that benefit their local community. As island businesses expand, they provide employment and bring money into the local economy. The interest in new businesses and models indicate that islanders are willing to try new things and to embrace the well-thought-out change of a scale that makes sense for their community.”
The Island Institute is a nonprofit organization located in Rockland dedicated to, among other things, supporting Maine’s year-round island communities.
Owning and operating a small business takes a lot of hard work but operating a small business on an island has its own set of challenges — challenges that other small businesses simply do not have.
As Tara Hire, owner and operator of Carina Grocery and Deli, a year-round grocery store on Monhegan, explains: “The greatest challenge is getting the appropriate goods out here. Either a distributor does not deliver to my freight boat, they have high minimums or their delivery doesn’t jive with the boat schedule. The logistics of getting my products is the most complicated thing I deal with. I hire drivers to pick up freight in Warren and they deliver it to the boat. I have freight dropped at Rockland Foodservice and they bring the goods to me with their regular delivery. All of which costs extra money.”
“Keeping my costs down so that I don’t have to charge outrageous prices is my second-biggest challenge. The logistics of running a small island business are very intense and take a lot of planning and organization. As well, there are a lot of people involved and therefore a lot of room for error. When I get all of that to line up right, it is very satisfying.”
For Steve and Kate Shaffer of Black Dinah Chocolatiers on Isle au Haut, the high cost of doing business on an island is the biggest challenge. As Steve says, “The transportation costs of workers and equipment is inherent in any work out here and you have to coordinate every step. In addition, the cost of insurance, electricity and gas can run two to three times what it is on the mainland.”
Certainly, there is support for island businesses — both in terms of customers and programs. The Island Institute has been helping islanders for many years and this summer announced the “ Coastal Innovation Fund” which offers loans to jump start or increase the capacity of island-based and remote coastal businesses.
“The tremendous success of Black Dinah Chocolatiers would not have been possible were it not for the support of the community, year-round and seasonal residents of our island, as well as the Island Institute which provided guidance and an outlet for our product,” says Steve.
In addition, Archipelago, the Island Institute’s storefront in downtown Rockland, showcases island art, crafts and products and has helped to launch many island businesses.
Surely, there is tremendous joy in living and working on an island. As Tara Hire offers, “My greatest joy is when someone comes into my store and says that they can’t find a certain product in their nearby stores, but I have it on Monhegan!”
When artist Gail Miller, owner and operator of Gail Miller Designs on Chebeague Island, was asked if her business would be different were she not on an island, she did not hesitate: “Would my business be different if I lived on the mainland? Probably. But I love the different way of life here on the island and wouldn’t change a thing.”