#StartupsEverywhere: Mount Desert Island, Maine

#StartupsEverywhere Profile: Alex Birdsall, Operations Manager, Mount Desert 365

This profile is part of #StartupsEverywhere, an ongoing series highlighting startup leaders in ecosystems across the country. This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.

Enkindling the year-round economy

Mount Desert Island is known for its natural beauty. Home to Acadia National Park, the island of 10,000 hosts more than three million visitors each year. The seasonality of the tourism economy imposes unique challenges for the island’s permanent residential population, but Mount Desert 365 is a community organization based in the village of Northeast Harbor working to promote year-round economic vitality through a focus on business incubation and infrastructure development. We spoke to Operations Manager Alex Birdsall to learn more about the advances they’re making in the Mount Desert area.


Can you tell us a little about yourself and the Mount Desert area?

I have a background in education, but most recently worked in the area with small tech manufacturers in marketing and sales roles, before joining Mount Desert 365 in November 2017.

My wife and I moved to her native Mount Desert in 2011. Mount Desert is a collection of several smaller villages located on Mount Desert Island along Maine’s coastline. There has been dwindling year-round population over the past 30 years, with little happening economically from October to April. There’s a tourism economy with Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor nearby, but it can be desolate in the winter. We have a high tax base -- Martha Stewart has a home in the area, for example -- but these high property values lead to affordability issues for the permanent population. So, a big part of Mount Desert 365’s work is focused in property development to combat these issues.

Tell us about Mount Desert 365. What is the work that you’re doing?

Mount Desert 365 is focused on the year-round economic vitality of the region through multiple avenues -- the property development aspect just mentioned, and through business development. Right now we are working on the construction of a new building that will accomplish a couple of goals. It will free up our current space for use by other businesses, and the building will also have affordable residential units. This, together with our other housing developments, are intended to help stabilize the housing market and ensure affordable housing for the year round workforce here.

On the business development side of things, our Business Bootcamp and Pitch Competition has been a runaway success. It is designed and facilitated by College of the Atlantic sustainable business professor Jay Friedlander, and is presented in collaboration with the Mount Desert Chamber of Commerce, and Bar Harbor Bank & Trust. The community comes together to make it work, and each year we have more businesses wanting to participate than we are able to accommodate. We get a lot of requests for professional development help and business coaching -- Mount Desert 365 seeks to fill that role. We want to build up the infrastructure and teach people to fish, metaphorically speaking, and our programming goals reflect that.

What makes Maine’s startup ecosystem unique?  

There is a robust entrepreneurial network in Maine. I think this has to do with a certain innate Maine characteristic -- they have a level of grit and bootstrapping that comes naturally. Going off to be a cog or drone in some large operation just doesn't exist, they often have to create that opportunity for themselves. The network attracts talent to Maine, and the state has done a good job to try to support it, whether that be through job funding, the Maine Venture fund, or the Seed Capital Tax Credit. We are trying to tap into that in Mount Desert.

Do you think Maine’s Seed Capital Tax Credit  is helpful for Maine startups?

I’m not intimately familiar with the Seed Capital Tax Credit, but I do know it is well used -- the program reached capacity on the first day this year. I would need to see the numbers on it, but it seems to have turbocharged the ecosystem. If the tax credit works, I would like to see further incentivization to contribute in a financial way to startups and ecosystem building in the state.

What policy challenges do you and the Mount Desert community face?

Right now, industries statewide — agriculture and especially our lobster fishermen — are being harmed by the trade war with China. Agriculture is getting relief, but the lobster industry is not, so that is hampering a big part of our economy in Maine.

We have broadband and connectivity issues in our area and throughout the state, which impacts the ability of our businesses to reach a local customer base, or for people to do things like telecommute. Our population is also not very dense, adding both to connectivity issues and underscoring the importance of telecommuting.

One of our principal challenges is often local politics. The town code and zoning ordinances, for example, make it hard to convert spaces from commercial to residential use or vice-versa. This is a big roadblock as we work on the important infrastructure piece. I would like to see the red tape removed that hampers the ability to change.

What is your goal for the next year? The next five years?

Our goal for the next year would be to move into our new office space, freeing up our current  space. We’d like to see the continued success of the business development programs, but also see more dollars and people dedicated to the cause, building our momentum.

The work we do places a reliance on volunteers. A retired professor, for example, can help advise a business regarding their operations. Over the next five years, we would like to see communities -- local and regional -- incentivized to engage in ecosystem building both through this type of volunteerism, as well as more formal means.

All of the information in this profile was accurate at the date and time of publication.

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