When a young islander came to Isle au Haut in the late 1980s, he became worried about the island’s future.
“When I moved to the island in late 1988 the community had 35 year-round residents and one kid in school,” recalls Matthew Skolnikoff, one of the founders of the Island Community Development Corporation (ICDC), and the organizations’ chairman and administrator for the past 20 years. “There was a real fear that the community would die.”
That fear was a catalyst for incorporating ICDC, a nonprofit organization in January, 1990. In 2010, ICDC celebrates its 20th anniversary with a history of success.
According to Rudy Graf, another ICDC founder who volunteered for the organization for 18 years, three new houses built between 1993-94 required $312,000 for the roads, septic systems, wells and design-build. Funds came from two federal Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), a Development Fund Grant, and a bank mortgage. The town of Isle au Haut donated the land.
Recalls Graf, “Matthew [Skolnikoff] was the author of a lot of work putting the financing together and the majority of the monies came from federal and state funds.”
Islander Albert Gordon designed and built the three homes in 13 months for $150,000, primarily with the help of another carpenter, Bob Blaisdell. According to Gordon, the first three tenants provided six school-age children and a baby on the way. ICDC’s three rental-housing units are full now as well.
A founding concept of ICDC is to provide affordable housing for new families in the hope that they will gain a foothold, buy their own place, move to another home on the island, and open the door to repeat the cycle. ICDC has rented to 10 families, couples or singles. Many of those families have settled permanently into the year-round community, some families have expanded, and some have built their own homes-effectively increasing the community’s current population by 15. With Isle au Haut’s year-round population fluctuating between 40 and 60 residents, ICDC renters or “graduates” and their families, represent between 25 and 40 percent of the population.
The town’s select board, Isle au Haut Fishermen’s Alliance, school board, planning board, dock committee, the Island Store Association, Isle au Haut Boat Services board, the Colwell Ramp Committee, ICDC board, the fire department, the Comprehensive Planning Committee, and library have current or former ICDC renters as volunteer members.
Ocean Resources, run by former ICDC residents David and Marcia Quinby, researches and provides marine biological supplies and preserves to school systems all over the U.S. The 28 year-old company was based on Isle au Haut from 1993 to 2002 and now operates from Sedgwick. Another ICDC success story is Steve and Kate Shaffer of Black Dinah Chocolatiers, (see “For the Love of Chocolate and Community” Working Waterfront, November 2009). The Shaffers sublet their two-story workshop (the same place that housed Ocean Resources for nearly a decade) to another former ICDC renter, a contractor that also provides island employment.
According to Skolnikiff, in 1994 ICDC obtained $70,000 in funds from a state Jobs Bond Grant and CDBG program to set up the ICDC Microloan Program in 1994. These low interest loans assist the island’s small business owners with seed money, with evening out the highs and lows of seasonal work, and equipment needs. There is a nearly 100 percent loan repayment history, and the money is recycled so the fund grows. Dozens of ICDC loans made over the years have ranged from $4,000 to $25,000.
Explains Skolnikoff, “Although individual loan recipients have to remain confidential I can tell you that we have made loans to a wide spectrum of people and types of businesses-to fishermen for traps, boat engines, and other gear; inns for septic systems; retail stores for inventory; and contractors for equipment. Saving and creating jobs is the other ICDC success story and by doing that we’ve helped more people (and their families) be able to make a living and stay here-thereby increasing and maintaining the population.”
The Island Community Development Corporation faces opportunities within a challenging environment. According to a recent Island Indicator study, Isle au Haut has one of the oldest populations in the region. The Isle au Haut Rural School’s student body has dropped steadily for several years; it is predicted to be down to four children total grades K-8 in 2010 and there are currently no pre-school children living on the island. Productive waters result in one of the highest lobster trap densities in the state, providing both opportunity for-and economic challenge to-Isle au Haut-based fishermen. Recent new businesses include an inn, gourmet chocolate factory, disposal services, building contractors, nature tours, specialty arts, aquaculture, organic gardening and dog-biscuit making. Some residents have found they can successfully work at, or telecommute from, home and there is one ICDC resident who travels to and from Deer Isle for her job as an educator.
The Island Community Development Corporation plans to take advantage of opportunity and attract more families to Isle au Haut to enjoy, expand and support the island’s economy and community: According to Skolnikoff, one ICDC home will be purchased by current renters, thus providing the non-profit organization with funds to develop new affordable year-round housing options for those wishing to positively contribute to Isle au Haut.
Kate Taylor lives on Isle au Haut and is a freelance writer, carpenter, and fisherman. Her husband, Ellard Taylor, is on the ICDC Committee.