A boat yard doesn’t clean out its biggest shed for just anyone. Yet that is exactly what the folks at Chebeague Island Boatyard agreed to do at the request of a few Chebeague residents for what turned out to be an incredible day at the Sustain ME conference this past month.

For a number of island participants, the conference began a day early. They left Isle au Haut, Monhegan and other remote locations so that they could get to Chebeague early, to “allow their brains to breath” as the crowds began to arrive. They came to be inspired, share their stories as entrepreneurs, and discuss how they are overcoming the challenges of doing business in remote locations.

As I listened to the speakers, I began to understand what sets the island and remote coastal entrepreneurs in attendance apart in the world. In their work to diversify their local economies they share a set of commitments that may hold promise as a foundation for the future of our coastal economy.

The most basic commitment everyone shares is to meet basic needs. Seems obvious, I know, but it’s hard to think about working toward a greater good until you have shelter, food, and water.

This sense of basic needs is extended in our island and remote coastal communities because we live where, on average, more than 55 percent of our population is above 65 or below 18. Entrepreneurs are working not just to provide for themselves as individuals but to meet the needs of those who are no longer in the workforce, and of our children too. This is clearly a priority on islands, where elder care and early childhood education are considered obligations, rather than options.

At one point early in the conference I asked all 150 attendees to raise their hands if in addition to their businesses, they held a public office, volunteered on a local nonprofit board, or volunteered within the last six months to support a specific cause. The entire room had a least one hand up. Every single person.

Many attendees had two hands and a foot raised. In other words, our entrepreneurs are not just doing their jobs and going home at night. They are giving back in their communities, en masse.

In this way, Maine’s island and coastal entrepreneurs are accomplishing a broader view of sustainability. The time and resources they give to support local organizations could be thought of as a commitment to producing a social surplus. A social surplus might be thought of as those things we benefit from as a community—transportation, schools, health facilities, community centers, historical societies.

When we go beyond meeting our basic needs and the needs of those who are dependent on us and invest time and money in community institutions, we are producing a social surplus. In many ways, it is the fact that we feel a sense of obligation to producing a social surplus that makes our communities stand out in the world.

We are fortunate that many of our community economies retain a connection to the marine environment. Another commitment that I heard referenced was a commitment to developing social enterprises that recognize the need for the long-term stewardship of the ocean, air and water. When we develop lobster businesses that rely on local stewardship, or energy businesses that seek to decrease carbon emissions, we are making a commitment to our commonly held resources, a commitment that will improve the future health of our planet. 

Meeting basic needs, meeting the needs of those who depend on us, producing a social surplus, and investing in the stewardship of our common resources—the Chebeague Island Boat Yard embodied these commitments when it emptied a shed to do something for the community. These are the commitments that I see all along the coast that distinguish Maine’s island and coastal entrepreneurs.

On islands and in remote communities everywhere we are learning from each other about integrating these commitments into our business practices and in everyday life. Through these commitments we will sustain our families, communities and our entire state, and create a diverse, strong economy that will sustain Maine for generations to come. 

This column is an expert from a presentation by the same name given at the Sustain ME conference on July 12, 2014. For more information on Sustain ME go to http://www.sustain-me.org

Rob Snyder is president of the Island Institute, the nonprofit that publishes The Working Waterfront. Follow Rob on Twitter: @ProOutsider