The Working Waterfront

Strengthening Maine’s small business backbone


Craig Olson
Posted 2020-09-17
Last Modified 2020-10-14

How often have we at the Island Institute said—like many others throughout Maine—that small business is the backbone of the state.

That became clearer than ever in March of this year. Coronavirus hit. We paused. We stepped back. We shut down. It became clear that small businesses were going to be the hardest hit, the ripple effect was going to be enormous. Panic set in.

Maine has one of the lowest infection rates in the nation, and we’re building back up. But what about that business backbone?

The Institute’s small business team began working at what I would call sea level, instead of the usual 10,000 feet, surveying the overall landscape of the economy in our communities. We put our heads down to curate resource pages on our website so small business owners could access information 24/7. We learned we were best suited to serve as a connector, not the qualified expert.

When small business owners contacted us with questions, we provided the answers, if we had them, but often we were able to simply connect them with an off-site small business advisor who could help them quickly and effectively.  We learned to navigate CARES Act programs like the Paycheck Protection Program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan. Through blogposts and emails we interpreted these programs as they were rolled out, shifted, and extended.

We launched a webinar in April, “Business in Uncertain Times,” to provide examples of what some business owners were doing to weather the pandemic.  We realized we needed to keep that conversation going and created the Commercial Currents podcast, hosted by Claire Donnelly. We’re ten episodes in with more subjects and potential interviews than we know what to do with.

Through the Tom Glenn Community Impact Fund we have loans with five small businesses along the coast and equity investments in two more.

In the past, our Glenn Fund professional development grants have funded higher level Quickbooks classes, yoga instructor certification in rural communities, training for a coffee roaster, as well as professional workshop registration and travel—anything that would help a small business owner improve their business.

What small business owners need now is someone to do the work, not teach them how to do it.  Our newly rechristened business resilience grants now provide up to $1,500 for equipment or a professional to help guide a business toward viability.

You just bought a historic building for a co-working space on your island? We can provide funding to purchase appropriate barriers to maintain the social distancing. Since late March, we have distributed $62,694 to 39 business owners pivoting to adapt to the pandemic. We are on track to distribute that same amount in the next 12 months.

As we move into the fall and winter, we remain vigilant. Without a prosperous summer season, we worry about the future of so many small businesses.

One thing we knew, but became starkly clear as we worked with businesses, was that the majority of small businesses along the coast are not established as an entity separate from their owner’s personal assets. Applying for many of the federal programs was made harder by not having a separation of those assets. This fall and winter a focus of our business resilient grants will be to provide funding for business owners to work with lawyers and accountants to make that shift. If things don’t work out for your business, you don’t want to lose your house and vehicles, too.

Finally, despite all of the impacts of COVID-19, there are still issues we are addressing. On July 5, the Midcoast lost a titan with the sudden death of Kevin Waters, owner of Penobscot Island Air. This air service is a crucial link for the Penobscot Bay islands to the mainland for passengers, goods, services, and medical transport. The company is moving forward under the leadership of Kevin’s wife, Terry, and we are doing our best to help to make sure this vital part of our regional economy survives and thrives.

Small business is the backbone of Maine’s coastal economy. Every business is complicated, every business is struggling, every business is personal.

We hope in the months ahead you will keep in mind those local businesses, what they are struggling with and against, and buy from them in any way you can. Some will fail. Many will thrive. There is no quick fix and it’s going to be hard, but the economy will come back stronger and more resilient than ever and we are doing our best to strengthen the backbone of this coast we call home.

Craig Olson is a senior community development officer with the Island Institute, publisher of The Working Waterfront.