LUBEC, Maine — Ask Heather Henry, owner of Lubec’s Eastland Motel with partner Glen Tenan, what doing business in Washington County is all about and she paints an exhausting picture.
It’s working 16-hour days, seven days a week. It’s painting, repairing, plumbing and cleaning. It’s trying to fill empty rooms in the middle of February and being nearly dizzy in July from a summer influx of visitors.
But Henry is just as quick to say that many Washington County businesses have a secret ally: counsel and advice from other local businesswomen.
Women entrepreneurs are starting and succeeding in a variety of businesses here — they are motel owners, chocolatiers, business and life consultants, bathing suit manufacturers, herbalists, farmers, recreational experts and artists. Twenty-five of these businesswomen from the county traveled to Augusta earlier this month and set up displays in the Maine State House Hall of Flags — surprising many legislators who stopped by with the depth and breadth of their work.
Looking around at all the products and opportunities, one lobbyist opened his eyes wide and said: “THIS is Washington County? I’m floored.”
Back home on the Down East coast, the women are quick to point out that surviving in Washington County is all about collaboration and fortitude, and that often means women working hard to make sure other women succeed.
“When I applied for a bank loan to purchase the Eastland Motel, a Coastal Enterprise Inc. business consultant came with the loan,” Henry said recently. “She guided me through the business plan process and meets with me regularly to ensure I am making wise business choices. She also makes valuable suggestions that have helped improve my business immensely. So, again, women helping women, seems to be what Washington County is all about.”
The trip to Augusta was sponsored by The Altrupreneurial Leadership Center of North America, a new peer-to-peer group based in Eastport, which was created to strengthen emerging businesses. The event was organized to showcase economic development in Washington County.
“Women entrepreneurship in Washington County is a vitally important and powerful part of economic development and growth,” Sarah Strickland, owner of a strategic consulting firm in Robbinston and secretary of the leadership center, said. “People here appreciate what it takes to thrive in this place. Women helping women is all about wanting others and the community to thrive. When I moved here full-time in 2012, I was surprised and so excited about what was going on here, to see the momentum that has been growing in places like Eastport and Machias. It’s contagious.”
April Adams, owner of Columbia Falls Pottery, opened a second store in Machias last summer.
“I’m not as isolated and now I’m much more exposed to women helping women, not just in the business world, but in government and the civic sector. It is phenomenal,” Adams said.
In the block of businesses surrounding her Machias store, all but one of the six other businesses are owned or operated by women.
“You find a camaraderie in Washington County that is difficult to find in other areas,” Adams said.
Adams said she thinks women tend to be wired to be more cooperative than competitive.
“It is easy to see the impact of positive action in a small community,” Adams said. “You can see the trail of money and how it works as your employees pay their mortgage, buy groceries at the nearby supermarket, fill their cars with gas from the station across the street. With the help of other businesswomen, it is so easy here to clearly see a path forward for a really meaningful life.”
Lanette Pottle of Robbinston founded Positivity Nation, which helps people create positive work and home environments.
She said that the difficulties and challenges in Washington County are actually the bonuses.
“Life in Washington County necessitates us to be resourceful, which is a breeding ground for innovation,” Pottle said.
Tessa Ftorek, a registered Maine Guide, operates Cobscook Hikes and Paddles out of Robbinston.
“People are generally very surprised at how much Washington County has changed,” Ftorek said. “When they offer a negative comment, I ask them how long ago they were Down East and tell them they need to come see us now. There may have been 25 strong, intelligent women on that bus to Augusta last week, but there are so many more standing behind us.”
Henry said this woman-to-woman collaboration is unique to Washington County because the area is often thought of as far-flung and remote.
“It is much tougher here, especially in the tourism industry,” Henry said. “Unfortunately, the majority of the tourism businesses shut down here during the long winter season, making it an unlikely destination, and for those of us that try to stay open, it’s tough going.”
There is an often-used saying in coastal Washington County: A rising tide floats all boats, a saying that can be easily applied to economic development.
“There is an overwhelming amount of support from other business owners, especially the women” Henry said. “I find that even would-be competitors work together so we all make it. There are many resources, from free business consultants, to Women’s Business Center staff, ALCONA and local women working together to provide support so we are all successful.
“What doesn’t the rest of the state know about Washington County women entrepreneurs?” Henry said. “We are tough, optimistic, extremely supportive of each other, and have a great amount of pride in our beautiful county.”