When you earn a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University in Applied Economics and Management, the career opportunities can be mind-boggling. For Emma Miran, the Island Institute’s Planning and Development Fellow in Stonington, the lure of island life, a fishing-based economy, and a vibrant arts community proved irresistible.

Emma has been working with Town Manager Kathleen Billings-Pezaris and the Stonington Economic Development Committee (SEDC) on developing a strategic plan, improving digital media and communication on the Town’s website, and jump-starting a micro-loan program for small businesses. For many reasons, Emma feels that she’s here at just the right time.

Lobster fishing is a mainstay of Stonington’s economy. With over 300 lobster licenses in town, the yield of lobsters in 2008 topped 6 million pounds. Disaster loomed, however, when the price paid lobstermen bottomed out at an average of $2.25, the lowest price for lobster in 20 years. The SEDC worked with the Penobscot East Resource Center (PERC) to create the Stonington Lobster Working Group. Their challenge is to bring together lobstermen to develop both short- and long-term solutions to curbing the volatility of the market for fresh lobster. Talks began this past winter, but with the onset of the heavy fishing season, discussion has slowed.

Stonington, on Deer Isle, has a year-round population of 3,028 people, so there is some diversity of businesses, including tourism, construction and services, but many businesses support and depend upon the fishing industry. One of Emma’s priorities has been applying for federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds for a microloan program. The Town learned recently that $150,000 in CDBG funds have been earmarked for their use, and pending the results of an environmental review, should be available for loans in late August.

The application and compliance process has been daunting. As Emma explained, “Stonington had actually received CDBG funds in the 1990’s, but there has been a turnover in town management since then, and we were faced with having to re-learn the application process and guidelines – a real challenge with federal government programs.” Also different this time, Stonington applied on its own. Last time, the government grant was divided between Stonington and Isle au Haut. The most critical difference, however, is the current economic climate. The ready availability of bank loans in the 1990s lessened reliance on the CDBG microloan program with its stricter guidelines, but the current scarcity of bank financing has made CDBG much more attractive.

Emma sits in on the review board proceedings and feels that she’s gained priceless experience in observing how a small economy functions. The factors to be considered in determining a business’s capacity, solvency, and ability to re-pay a loan are far more specific and practical than anything you learn in college business courses. The disappointment when a loan is denied can be painful.

The other half of Emma’s Fellowship involves behind-the-scenes work with the historic Stonington Opera House. With no previous experience in arts or theater, Emma came to this position ready to help with digital communication and the website (http://www.operahousearts.org/index.php), working with Opera House Executive Director Linda Nelson. She has extended her creativity through filmmaking. The Opera House provides free public access to its digital media studio. Working with budding filmmakers, Emma picked up film editing skills and has become proficient with filmmaking software, Final Cut Pro. She has used it to produce clips for the website, and has some ideas for future projects.

Theater life has a rhythm of its own, especially during the frantic “all-hands-on-deck” rush just before the show goes up at the Opera House. With the guidance of her two advisors, Emma enjoys the two contrasting parts of her fellowship. And the joy and excitement of the productions makes it all worthwhile. Emma said that last month’s Actors Equity production of Midsummer Night’s Dream was “thrilling!”

Emma feels that life as a Fellow in Stonington has opened her up, in a variety of ways. The artistic community offers a wealth of opportunities, including Island Workshop Day at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts where Emma studied shibori, the Japanese art of dying silk scarves.

Unlike some islands, Deer Isle has many young people and an active social scene, but Emma has been most delighted by the diversity of friends she’s made. “Before I came to Stonington, I never really took the opportunity to spend a lot of time with people who are in different life stages than me. It’s been so enriching to spend time with and get to know people who are older and more experienced than me. To have them treat me as their equal, sharing thoughts and stories, is the gift I’ll treasure most about my time here.” Emma plans to pursue an interest in working with nonprofit organizations and has one more year to go on her fellowship.

Kathy Lane is the grants coordinator for the Island Institute.