ISLE AU HAUT, Maine — Like lots of kids in rural Maine, when Michael Barter, 11, his brother Andrew Barter, 12, and their friend Alex Tully, 9, get in a fight, they all suffer excruciating boredom for a few hours until they make up. They have to make up. They can’t just walk to someone else’s house and make a new friend or chat with another schoolmate. They are the only kids on Isle au Haut.
That’s a problem.
Currently, there are no signs that the K-8 school will be able to stay open after Alex, the youngest, graduates in four years. It’s been proven in the last 30 years in Maine that when an island school closes, it’s only a matter of time before the year-round community transforms into a summer-only town. None of the 40 year-round residents want that for the small island, which is 6 miles off Stonington.
“When an island school closes, the women and children leave because they have to go to school somewhere. When they leave, the store and post office close. Then the fishermen have to leave to be with their families. That’s how you kill an island community,” said Rob Snyder, the executive director of the nonprofit Island Institute in Rockland. “That’s why they fight tooth and nail to keep their schools open.”
Every island in Maine is struggling to keep their schools vibrant and open. In the last 100 years, Maine went from supporting 300 year-round island communities to 15, according to Snyder.
The island populations, like the rest of Maine, are aging. Island populations seem to be aging faster than the state as a whole, according to Snyder. Without a contingent of child-bearing-age people, the island will have to import young families if they want to sustain a population.
The trouble is, if a family was willing to move to Isle au Haut today, there would be nowhere for them to live. There are no year-round rentals. Most of the seasonal homes don’t have heat and the ones that do would have to be vacated from June through August or the family would be faced with paying high summer rental fees.
Understanding this, the Maine State Housing Authority gave $350,000 to the island’s community development organization to help build two single-family rental homes.
The funding is from $30 million approved by the Maine Legislature in 2009 for energy-efficient affordable housing. About $2 million of that funding goes to islands. So far, Peaks, Chebeague, North Haven, Vinalhaven, Islesboro and Isle au Haut have been approved for projects. Monhegan and the Cranberry Isles are considering applying for the program, according to Mary Terry of the Island Institute.
Isle au Haut already has two of these homes that were built in the early 1990s, and they are always full. Right now one couple in their 30s is in the process of moving out, and the island already has a tenant on hold ready to bring a child to the school.
In the past 20 years of Isle au Haut’s affordable rental housing program, its two homes have offered 12 families a place to start island life. Four of the families that stayed in the rental units have gone on to buy properties on the island.
The new homes are meant for working-class people and will be energy efficient. The rent will be about $480 per month for each of the two houses and the houses can’t be sold for the first 15 years — they need to remain as affordable rental homes.
“The most vital thing for this island is to have new housing to attract new families. Our island is at stake,” said Gerardine Wurzburg, the chairperson of the Isle au Haut Community Development Corporation. “It’s very much an ‘if you build it they will come’ situation.”
Wurzburg is an Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker.
The island won’t take just anybody, though. With a beautiful setting, cheap rent and a school system with more one-on-one attention than perhaps anywhere else in the nation (there is one teacher and one full-time education technician for the three enrolled students), Isle au Haut has some chips to bargain with.
The island wants younger families with children who will enroll in school. It wants people who will be in town committees and participate in the small-town community life. It needs people who can work there — either on a boat or people who can bring their jobs with them, like Wurzburg is sometimes able to do.
The filmmaker splits her time between Washington, D.C. and the island. If it were up to her, she would be on Isle au Haut year-round, but her job requires her to sit in meetings with people to talk about her documentary projects. Despite this, Wurzburg said she can work remotely and does as often as possible. The high-speed Internet that her island home is connected to helps a lot.
“People can conduct all kinds of business remotely. Black Dinah and I do. It’s also an open fishing community,” Wurzburg said. “A lot of the fishing zones have reached capacity and we haven’t. And we are welcoming — other communities aren’t welcoming [to new fishermen].”
Black Dinah Chocolatiers is the success story of the affordable housing projects that are already on the island. The owners, Steve and Kate Shaffer, started their island lives in the homes before opening up a small chocolate factory that employs several islanders. The Shaffers also have a cafe that acts as a community hub.
Another success for the island is the Clarks. Selectman Bill Clark and his multi-talented wife Brenda, who works on the island fishing, cutting hair, cleaning homes, collecting trash and other tasks, both moved to the island’s affordable rental units before they built their own home on the island.
According to them, the people who move into the new units will have to be resourceful and make their own fun.
“Somebody who likes to go to dinner a lot and movies, they won’t be happy here,” Bill Clark said.
There is no restaurant on the island. Needless to say, there isn’t a movie theater either. The island has a store that is open a couple hours a day a few days a week. The same is true of the post office, library and town office. Aside from the chocolate factory, that’s about everything in the town. However, half the island is owned by Acadia National Park, so hikers and outdoorsy types can have their fill of mountains and seascapes. That’s more up the Clarks’ alley. They like the slower pace of life an island can offer. Without the affordable rental units, the couple would not have been able to move to the island.
“There would have been nothing to rent — affordable or not,” Brenda Clark said. “They are the only opportunity for somebody to come out and stay.”
Knowing this, and also knowing the two rental homes the town manages are always full and the school is almost empty, the selectmen decided it was time to add more affordable rental units to the island. It was such an important issue that the community gave a piece of land located right in the middle of town to the project. It also gave an entire hillside with ocean views (few plots on the island don’t have ocean views) to the project.
The hillside can fit about five homes. That’s good news, because the two imminent building projects won’t be the last, if Isle au Haut has anything to say about it. Once the three-bedroom hillside home and the two-bedroom in-town house are built, the town will make a plan to expand even more.
The goal is to boost the population from about 40 to closer to 100 over the next 10 years or so. That might be a far reach. The expected retention rate of families who come to the island’s affordable rental home program is 50 percent. The expected lease-length is about 5 years. That means in the next 15 years the island should retain three families from its two new rental homes.
Although everyone is welcome to apply for the housing, it’s clear what the town wants and needs: people with children.
During a recent school snack time, the three island boys discussed the issue.
“Going to a three-kid school is really fun. We have lots of field trips,” said Michael Barter while he munched on a packet of Gushers. “We’re all really good friends. I never get lonely.”
Alex Tully, who enjoyed a yogurt cup, admitted that sometimes things on the island are pretty boring and having more kids on the island might be fun.
“Not too big. I like this.” Michael said, contemplating. “Eight. Eight kids would be good.”
“Yeah. Eight would be better,” Alex agreed. “Right now you can’t get away with anything.”