The Island Institute: sustaining Maine’s island and coastal communities

Craig Olson, Senior Community Development Officer, Island Institute

Stonington, Maine, from the water

We all want what’s best for our family. In a greater sense, that applies to islands as well. For those of us who live year-round on islands, that community becomes your family. As the old saying goes, “You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family.” I’d like to amend that to, “You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your fellow islander.” Like any small community, island life can be a struggle, but there is almost nowhere else that islanders would rather be—and that never makes it easy.

As it has for the past 36 years, our work at the Island Institute focuses on helping Maine’s 15 unbridged, year-round island communities and 105 coastal communities obtain access to the resources they need to create sustainable local economies. We want to ensure that these communities are not left behind in terms of infrastructure, educational support, and economic sustainability.

At the Island Institute, we focus on three areas of strategic priority: Strengthening Community Economies, Enhancing Education & Leadership, and Delivering & Sharing Solutions.

Strengthening Community Economies

If people in the communities in which we live cannot work, then the community withers. Traditional water-based industries have shifted in recent years. Although fishing, specifically lobster, is still the main economic driver for many communities—that, too, is shifting. Seeing changes in the lobster fishery, and recent challenges like bait shortages, we recognized the need to help fisherman diversity their livelihoods so they could continue working on the water. Created in 2015, our Aquaculture Business Development program invites applicants to be one of the 25 participants that we support in a year-long program that provides, free of charge, all of the basic instruction and support to get in the water and start an aquaculture business in mussels, oysters, scallops, or kelp. Now in our fourth year, we have had over 122 participants in the program since the first class was started in 2016 and have seen 30 new businesses created. In this year’s class, 72% are lobstermen, our highest percentage yet. This is a key indicator, for us, that many lobstermen see the need for diversification to ensure long-term stability, remain on the water, and weather the ups and downs of their primary industry.

It isn’t only about fishing though. Many communities have small businesses that focus on the “summer communities” of vacationers, many of whom have had homes in that community for generations. Our small business program works with businesses to help them with planning, financing options, and ideas to start new businesses or grow the ones they have. Our work in the area of broadband expansion for rural communities has led some communities to gain the high-speed broadband access they need and attract young families whose jobs are location-independent or inspire them to start businesses that can be based anywhere there is fast, reliable internet access. I am a prime example of this. I live on the island of Islesboro and my daily commute to the office takes a little more than an hour with separate cars on both sides and a ferry in-between. Our island’s municipal broadband system allows me to work from home two days per week and participate in meetings through teleconferencing. It’s a thirty-second commute to my island office, allowing me to be more productive. By commuting only three days out of the week I save my family $1,000 per year in ferry tickets alone.

We also work extensively with islands and coastal communities on affordable, renewable energy solutions to help create alternatives for small communities by providing the technical expertise they need to make the right decisions for their individual needs.

One of our greatest areas of concern is climate change. Penobscot Bay, one of the areas in which we work and the home to many of our island communities, is warming faster than 99% of the world’s oceans. The lobster stock is shifting location, and we are witnessing a fishing industry that is becoming a lobster monoculture. In addition to our Aquaculture Business Development program which helps fishermen diversify, we help communities plan for sea level rise. We provide grants and technical assistance for communities looking to the future and planning for the impacts that rising sea levels will have on their waterfronts and downtowns. In at least one case, sea level rise could potentially turn one island into two islands, causing a low-level area mid-island to become submerged.

Enhancing Education & Leadership

Realizing that all of this cannot be done just by providing grants and technical assistance, education of our young people and all community members is key. Through our ILEAD (Island Leadership Exploration and Development) programs, we offer seminars on everything from sea level rise planning and island historical societies to municipal leadership training and nonprofit board management. By pulling key community members, outside experts, and a facilitator into the same room, we can help develop community-based programs and strategies for a particular subject area.  

Our Island Scholarship program and travel scholarships provide island and coastal students with grants to travel as well as annual renewable scholarships for post-secondary education. Recently, two local students have made use of those funds for a month-long summer institute in Paris, a German study-abroad program, and received annual scholarships to help pay for their college educations. Even as we focus on increasing educational opportunities for young people, we also provide assistance to teachers in island or isolated schools that gives them the opportunity to interact with peers, share best practices, and realize that many of them are facing the very same challenges.

Delivering & Sharing Solutions

For 20 years, the Institute has offered its Island Fellowship Program to communities. Island Fellows are recent college graduates who commit to a one-year program, with an option to extend for a second year (most do), and are placed by the Institute in an island or coastal community to work on specific projects identified by the community. The host community contributes less than 20% of the annual cost of the Fellow, the Island Institute provides the remaining financial support, training, and mentorship throughout the time that the Fellow lives and works in the community. Fellows have worked on an unbelievable range of projects from water quality issues and early childhood education to comprehensive plans for municipal governments and theater and arts education. In all cases it is a project, or pair of projects, chosen by the community. Each community commits financial support for a portion of the costs, and provides a mentor on the island who works with the Fellow throughout their placement.  Fellows are our most visible daily presence in many of these communities.

Since Island Fellows aren’t available for every community, we also help keep communities informed through our monthly, free newspaper, The Working Waterfront, our annual Island Journal, and our annual Waypoints publication providing in-depth data analysis of our coast and its communities, and our “What Work Solutions Library” that offers real-world solutions to common island and coastal challenges and shares them through a digital library, providing the opportunity for others facing the same challenges to learn from each other.

Finally, as a community development organization, we realize that the work we do can also be of assistance to communities and organizations outside of the State of Maine. We have worked with island communities in the Great Lakes, Alaska, and the southeast US coast, as well as with renewable energy partners in Denmark. We only strengthen what we do and the coast that we serve by learning from and interacting with others in situations similar to ours.

The Island Institute is focused on helping island and coastal communities remain viable for generations to come. While our work often evolves and changes with needs of our communities, we have found that our greatest successes happen when we create, maintain, and nurture strong ties within the communities we support. In the next 12 months we will be creating our next strategic plan, which will carry us forward as an agent of change for Maine’s island and coastal communities for the next three to five years. Although titles may change and programs may end or begin, the constant will always be, as our mission states, that “The Island Institute works to sustain Maine’s island and coastal communities, and exchanges ideas and experiences to further the sustainability of communities here and elsewhere.”

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