Island Institute Galvanizes Rural Coastal Economy

For Maine’s rural island and coastal communities, fishing—especially lobstering —has been a way of life for as long as most can remember. But the shifting economy and the changing coastal ecosystem mean that the outlook for the industry is uncertain. As a result, many residents are seeking ways to stay on the water and support their families in more reliable ways.

The Island Institute, whose mission is to sustain Maine’s island and coastal communities through economic development and other services, has stepped up to help those making a living through fishing expand their skills. In 2016, the John T. Gorman Foundation provided the Island Institute with a three-year grant to support the organization’s small business support services. The Foundation made the investment in recognition of the strong need for a more diverse economy to safeguard the region’s future.

“The island and coastal communities of Maine are vital to the state’s culture and economy. Our hope is that this partnership with the Island Institute will create footholds into new business opportunities for these communities and keep them vibrant in the long term,” says Nicole Witherbee, Chief Program Officer at the Foundation.

The grant helped the Island Institute start the Island and Coastal Business Launchpad program, which offers existing and would-be entrepreneurs in the region the targeted business support services they need to be successful in the new economy. The program has just wrapped up its first year, and has already provided more than 200 clients with assistance on everything from social media to accounting. Twenty-five small businesses have also opened thanks in part to the coaching services and workshops offered by the Launchpad program. The Island Institute accomplished this by leveraging existing federal, state and local resources, linking the program participants to the widest possible network of assistance.

The program has also provided unique insight into to challenges and concerns faced by rural entrepreneurs and business owners in Maine. Issues raised by the Launchpad program participants confirm what the Island Institute has already identified as another impediment to the region’s economic future—a patchy and unreliable broadband network. “It’s impossible to run a small business these days without consistent access to the Internet. The weak broadband network in the region means that many of our clients face problems with e-commerce and other tools they need to stay competitive,” explains Briana Warner, Economic Development Director at the Island Institute.

Indeed, the problem of digital divide is stark. While 62% of U.S. residents have access to high speed internet, only 12% of Maine households are connected in this way, and the percentage is even lower in rural and coastal communities. That’s why the Foundation has decided to complement the grant to the Launchpad program with support for the Island Institute’s efforts to expand broadband access in the area.

The organization is currently working in 33 island and coastal communities in Maine with the ambition to get these communities at or above national average broadband speeds by 2025. Staff there hope to accomplish this by facilitating community working groups, providing needs assessments, and delivering other practical on-the-ground support to ensure that these communities can compete in the 21st-century economy. With improved technological infrastructure and a business-savvy workforce, this beautiful region of the state can continue to thrive.