From Point Lookout in Northport, I’m gazing out at the islands of Penobscot Bay. On this cold, but sundrenched morning in March, my imagination and hopes for the future of the Maine coast are soaring. Today, 17 island leaders from eight islands graduated from the Island Sustainability through Leadership and Entrepreneurship program (ISLE).

Over the course of the morning, the graduates presented their ideas for businesses to start on the islands of Maine. As these businesses grow, the coastal economy will begin to diversify and take on a vibrancy that should reinforce why we are all here.

Rather than shunning tourism, the participants embraced it.

A Swan’s Island business will create locally inspired welcome baskets for those arriving at rental properties over the course of the summer. An entrepreneur from Chebeague will rent equipment to those visiting her island, making the trip over and back more convenient for young families and campers. Another business will provide island walking tours, showing visitors the views that inspired great painters, and teaching about the connection between art and island community history. The environment played a critical role in tourism ideas as well. One entrepreneur developed a program to engage visitors in place-based education courses that will reveal the richness and fragility of island ecology.

Local food was an important theme. Three North Haven residents laid out their vision for a farm-to-school program, while a Long Island resident presented plans for an aquaponics operation that would provide fresh produce on the island and off, year round.

Interestingly, only one of 17 entrepreneurs had plans to capitalize on the Maine lobster brand. A family owned business on Vinalhaven has created a small-scale processing facility and will launch a branded frozen seafood product line. The markets for these businesses will start on island but their business models require looking to the coast and beyond in order to sustain jobs in the community. This is an important nuance to understanding the plans.

A number of ISLE grads were from families that came to the islands generations ago. Even more came to the islands from elsewhere. ISLE attracted some remarkably talented people looking to reinvent themselves and give back to their communities in the process.

An accomplished retired architect proposed a new business, building and selling scale models of important community buildings. A Peaks Island builder is looking to the future by investing in kids through summer programs. An Islesford architect is pioneering a way to make old homes healthier. And an architect and artist from Peaks is looking to develop a green building and art portfolio in the community.

It is a seldom spoken truth that it can be hard to become part of an island community. This feeling exists everywhere, but perhaps on islands it is more obvious. The vast majority of ISLE participants married into Maine’s island communities, becoming a part of generations-old families. Others came as young couples and fell in love with the places over a decade ago or more.

Over the course of the day, I learned that a powerful part of the ISLE experience is the recognition that it doesn’t really matter if you are from the island or from away; becoming a part of an island community can feel like becoming an island unto yourself, “an island within an island.” It happens slowly, putting aside a point of view, stepping back instead of forward around an issue you care about, passions and conviction slowly cast aside in favor of making island life work. Over time, this can have the effect of wearing people down.

Over the past three years, the Island Institute and Leadership for Local Change have worked with 50 island residents in the ISLE program. They range in age from 25—55. They play an enormous role in sustaining island communities, and not just by contributing to the population. Many of the graduates are proud of the important volunteer roles that they fill in their communities. By meeting each other, and learning that there are many, many more people in the same situation, they are empowered to move forward with bold new ideas.

The energy, optimism and vision of this remarkable group of people inspire confidence in the future of this coast. The ISLE program has become a place to reconnect with dreams and aspirations, and to pursue a more full and productive life. In the process, each participant has deepened personal commitments to themselves, and the communities and the people they have come to love along the coast of Maine.

For more information about ISLE see:

Rob Snyder is president of the Island Institute.