How Maine's Islands Are Coming Back to Life
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the survival of remote communities has economic — and cultural — value.
By Steven Butler
The workaday ferry to Maine’s Vinalhaven Island would bomb in any beauty contest. I had settled down to work on a scuffed, painted plastic seat in the small passenger cabin for the 75-minute ride but was chased onto the deck by the echo chamber effect on the antics of a high school sports team heading to a match. A refrigerated 18-wheeler seemed to overwhelm the boat but left enough room for a smaller truck belonging to Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine Lobster (yes, that Bean family), servicing the company’s landing dock and bait station at one of the state’s busiest lobster ports.
Vinalhaven is a survivor, one of just 15 offshore islands home to a year-round population in Maine. It once hosted double today’s 1,185 residents, when its principal business was cutting up the island’s vast stock of granite for iconic construction projects — think the Washington Monument, Brooklyn Bridge and Philadelphia’s spectacular Masonic Temple. Today, after a century of decline, signs are emerging that the islands have stabilized and are even showing growth, and some of their efforts to attract year-round residents have been shared with struggling island communities as far away as Alaska.
Indeed, the talk of the town here is a baby boom. Around 25 kids are likely headed to kindergarten in about five years, a possible boon to a school that stretches up through grade 12 but boasts just 185 students. In neighboring North Haven, with 355 residents, recent high school grads are returning to set up their own businesses. Then there’s the Island Institute’s Peace Corps–like program, where about two-thirds of its more than 100 fellows have stayed in Maine, and about a third on the islands themselves — something Karen Burns, who runs the program, calls “reverse brain drain.”
People who love island life have founds ways to make it work.
Of course, the survival of smaller island communities in many places around the world is a challenge as more people move to hipper, urban centers. Isolation breeds more than just loneliness and can mean higher food or energy costs and fewer job opportunities. Shrink too much in population, and schools and stores collapse, sometimes leading to a community’s death. While far-flung places such as Ittoqqortoormiit, Greenland (population: 425) can count on brave adventurists to prop up their micro economies, more than 250 of Maine’s islands haven’t been as lucky and got wiped out over the years.
Which is why signs of a reversal are so welcome. In the early 1980s, the Rockland-based Island Institute, a privately funded development think tank, tried saving these communities by initially focusing on forestry and conservation. But in more recent years, its nearly 50-person-strong bureaucracy, still full of lofty ideas about sustainability, has shifted more attention to attracting year-round residents. And for good reason: The islands are economically important to the state — some as lobster ports, and many as summer tourist destinations. These opportunities have given younger folks a perhaps surprising alternative to destinations such as New York, San Francisco and Boston, typically seen as the places where ambitious people move.
One new convert is Alana Flanagan, a recent Boston University graduate who arrived on Vinalhaven this September as one of the Institute’s latest fellows. She’s looking into why engagement with the island’s public school seems low — and will hopefully help fix it. Andrew Dorr took a similar route a few years ago, when he was assigned at town hall to help with its economic development planning. Now he’s town manager, grappling with thorny issues like sidewalks (badly needed) or building roads (some could use repaving).
There’s also plenty of nostalgia for an iconic way of living, where residents themselves, from Monhegan to Great Cranberry, have effectively organized and pooled resources to deal with issues like keeping a commuter ferry running, building affordable housing or reviving an old schoolhouse that closed 15 years ago after it ran out of students. “We’re always looking for opportunities,” says Phil Whitney, president of the nonprofit Cranberry Isles Realty Trust, whose state-supported affordable housing projects helped boost the winter population from fewer than 40 a few years ago to around 65 this year.
But there are still challenges, too. Electricity can cost two to seven times more than mainland rates, while sluggish Internet and unreliable cellphone coverage make working remotely difficult. This area also relies on just a few key industries, making the economy vulnerable to cyclical swings. And Samuel McReynolds, a sociologist at the University of New England, wonders if the net impact of the Island Institute’s programs isn’t to subsidize wealthy summer vacationers, who bid up the cost of housing for everyone else.
For its part, the Institute says it recognizes that housing affordability remains an acute issue for the year-round community. Yet some people who love island life have founds ways to make it work. Alison Thibault, who handcrafts glass jewelry at Vinalhaven’s Main Street shop Five Elements, has nurtured her community network to build a year-round business. And Jamian Shields, who grew up in North Haven, returned a few years ago after persuading the island’s Turner Farms to add a creamery. The 36-year-old is now practicing cheese-making skills she learned while apprenticing in Washington state, and bought a fixer-upper house with her carpenter husband to settle down. “It’s definitely a comfortable place to be,” she says, while also recognizing that the lonely, cold winters aren’t for everyone.