Innovation and Inspiration:
I recently attended a summit in Bangor hosted by Envision Maine, an organization that promotes Maine’s next economy. The organization provides support to entrepreneurs, innovators, and others motivated to improve Maine’s economy. The summit honored 8 “rural spark plugs,” featured 55 speakers and ten workshops designed to inspire conversations about ways to strengthen the economy.
I was happy to find out that Todd West, principal of Deer Isle-Stonington High School where my daughter attends, was going to speak at the workshop about education in rural Maine. Todd is an amazing leader who genuinely cares about the success of his students. He knows all of their names, as well as the names of most parents. Todd has increased the graduation rate at the high school from 57% in 2009 to over 90% for the past three years. Event coordinator Alan Caron and his team chose many talented and inspiring individuals like Mr. West to speak throughout the day.
Collaboration Leads to Success
Paul Costello, Executive Director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development, drove over 7 hours through a snowstorm to speak at the summit. Now that’s dedication! He discussed how economic strength in rural communities comes from finding a common ground by focusing on mutual goals. He explained that communities with clear goals become more organized, are able to pool their resources and experience greater growth. Costello said that rural communities should collaborate and explore what they can do right now with the resources they have. This builds momentum, inspires people and empowers community members.
Determination & Stubbornness
The honorees shared their stories of struggles, setbacks and eventual successes. Amanda Beal from Maine Farmland Trust said Maine entrepreneurs have determination, stubbornness, and a commitment to hard work which leads to success. Lucas St. Clair of Elliotsville Plantation, Inc. who worked tirelessly to create the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument explained the challenges he faced, and how efforts grew stronger as more people became involved.
Leah Cook from Crown O’ Maine said that working together and doing what is fair to all is key. She believes that trust is created through person to person interactions, which is important in business. Leah said that it’s important to focus on what is possible, not what you can’t do. It is that belief that has become a key resource she and her business partner and sister, Maranda Cook, have used to build three separate, successful businesses.
Vaughan Woodruff was born in Maine but left for a while. He discovered his parents were right when they told him he could leave, but his heart would stay here. Vaughan came back for his heart, and to establish Insource Renewables, a company that installs renewable energy systems. He also co-founded the nonprofit organization Heart of Pittsfield to revitalize his hometown. Vaughan shared that Mainers are resilient, hard working, and resourceful which leads to their success.
Collaboration and Maine’s Small Rural Farms
The first workshop featured Simon Frost from Thirty Acre Farm, Carly DelSignore of Tide Mill Organic Farm, and Nicholas Lindholm of the Blue Hill Berry Company. The panel shared that finding a niche is just as important as the value you add to your product or service. Nicholas said that networking is important, and explained his cooperation with Highland Organics to expand his product line. When similar businesses remove the competition factor and combine resources, new opportunities are created for both businesses.
Funding and Growing Rural Businesses
The panel for the second workshop included Cheryl Pelletier from USDA Rural Development, John Egan from Coastal Enterprises, Inc., and Scott Budde from Maine Harvest Credit Project. The panel agreed that capital often isn’t the limiting factor for small businesses. Instead, cash and equity are often the hardest things for most rural businesses to come up with. Each organization offers different types of financial assistance that are worth looking in to for funding options.
Collaboration in the Recreation Tourism Sector
The last workshop I attended featured an inspiring panel of creative and talented individuals. They included Jen Brophy, owner of Red River Camps and president of the Maine Sporting Camp Association, Lindsay Downing, owner of Mount Chase Lodge, Carolann Ouellette, former Director of the Maine Office of Tourism and current Executive Director of Maine Huts & Trails, and Russell Walters, owner of Northern Outdoors and the Adventure Travel Trade Association.
Jen Brophy shared her story of taking over the family sporting camp business. The camp was built in 1886 and is located off the grid in the Maine wilderness. Jen shared the challenges of getting supplies to the remote location, only accessible by logging roads. The business also requires her to be skilled in many trades. She’s the plumber, carpenter and hostess. Jen grew up at the camps and has noticed a change in the clientele over the past 15 years. Hunters and fishermen used to be their primary clients. Now she’s beginning to see more families and people from cities looking to “detox” from the digital world.
Less than a year ago Lindsay Downing and her husband Mike also took over the family business. While Lindsay’s lodge has electricity and isn’t located in the deep Maine woods like Jen’s camps, she too has had to use her resourcefulness to overcome obstacles. Her major challenge has been determining her target market. What clients expect from a stay at the lodge is very different from one person to the next. She strives to offer many different services, including home cooked dinners by reservation. Lindsay has worked with Jen, who is also the president of the Maine Sporting Camps Association, to problem solve some of the challenges that come with new ownership of an established sporting lodge.
I had the opportunity to hear Carolann Ouellette speak at the Maine Governor’s Conference on Tourism in 2016. She is knowledgeable, knows Maine’s tourism industry very well, and offers a lot of insight. Carolann shared how important it is for organizations to find the right partners. It is also important to understand that everyone is working with limited resources. Partnerships make it possible to pool these resources and grow. Carolann explained that travelers today are looking for vacation experiences that refresh and rejuvenate them. Recreation tourism organizations need to market how their business can provide these experiences.
Russell Walters says that he operates an outdoor company for indoor people. His clients typically have professional indoor jobs, and are seeking a vacation that gets them out of the office and surrounded by nature. He collaborates with many other business owners, including Maine Huts & Trails and local Registered Maine Guides, to provide clients who stay multiple days a larger variety of outdoor experiences. Most of his visitors come to Northern Outdoors to experience a different culture, for personal growth, and to challenge themselves.
The Bottom Line
Envision Maine brought together talented and innovative people who are doing incredible things for Maine’s rural economy. Rural Maine will experience more growth, opportunity and success through cooperation and collaboration. Networking and forming partnerships strengthens our communities as well as our economies, something we can all benefit and grow from.