Maine Islands and the Internet

Maine’s island communities have struggled for decades to survive, much less to thrive.

By Jeff Clark

Dexter Lee, a selectman on Swans Island, is not a man who chortles. Nor does he bubble or burble. But he sounds downright pleased when he talks about the future of the island he has called home for fifty-two years. “We have eleven new students moving into town this summer,” he says. Three new families were moving to the island off the coast of Down East Maine, from as far away as New Hampshire and as close as next-door Frenchboro.

Eleven new youngsters doesn’t sound like much, but that is a significant addition to a school that had a mere thirty-nine students last year. And three new families on an island of 332 year-round residents, according to the last U.S. Census, qualifies as a veritable population boom.

Little things mean a lot in Maine’s fifteen year-round island communities. When a town’s population is measured in only two or three digits, it doesn’t take much to shift perceptions. “I’ve been looking at some of the demographic data from the Census, and the change in age groups, for example, looks like a huge percentage change in some areas,” notes Steve Miller, executive director of the Islesboro Islands Trust and a longtime Islesboro resident. “But then you realize that the change represents maybe two more people on the whole island.”

A new report from the Rockland-based Island Institute, Island Indicators 2012, paints a statistical picture of the islands that is both encouraging and troubling. While the islands in Casco and Penobscot bays have maintained or even increased their populations since 1990, the islands Down East still have to fight for every bit of good news. Island populations are generally older than the rest of Maine — already the oldest state in the nation — yet they also have higher median incomes and more education than their mainland cousins. On the one hand, islands are overly dependent on lobstering for their economies; on the other, the Great Recession has reduced property values and made housing more affordable for island families.

The report offers a snapshot of the past and the present, but it also offers some hints of a future that may be considerably different. Other, less tangible factors are at work that bode well for the islanders’ future. Internet service has improved markedly on some of the islands, sparking a growing trend of newcomers who earn their livings over the Web. Island life is also attracting more young families, often led by the grown children of former summer residents who want to shed the hurly-burly of the mainland rat race for a calmer, more community-oriented way of life.

Philip Conkling, the founder and president of the Island Institute, tells the story of a family who summered on Casco Bay’s Long Island, which saw its population grow from 202 in 2000 to 230 in 2010. “The wife looked at her husband at the end of the summer and said, ‘I’m not going back.’ She couldn’t stand the thought of returning to suburbia,” Conkling says. “She stayed on the island, enrolled the kids in the island school, and her husband commuted from his job in Washington, D.C., until he could move up here full-time.”

Two other families who have recently made Long Island their year-round home, too, had summer roots on the island. “I talked with one of their kids, and he told me about how it would take a month to organize a play date with one of his friends back in Virginia,” he recalls. “Now, he says, ‘I just walk out the back door.’ ”

Maine’s island communities have struggled for decades to survive, much less to thrive. By their nature the islands are isolated and insular, with scarce opportunities for young people and limited amenities for newcomers. “The islands reached their apogee in the 1870s, 1880s,” explains Conkling, when there were more than three hundred year-round island communities. “From 1900 to 1970 it was one long decline. It was very disheartening to islanders because their biggest export was their children.”

The back-to-the-land movement in the 1970s provided a brief respite from the downtrend, but most of the homesteaders had returned to the mainland by the end of the decade. “They weren’t prepared for many of the trade-offs island life requires,” Conkling explains. “The people moving back now are much more committed; they know what they’re getting into.”

In recent years, the islands have also benefited from record lobster catches. “None of the growth we’ve seen could have happened in the absence of a robust lobster population,” Conkling points out. “Landings in the last twenty-five years have quintupled, and the islands are in the midst of extraordinarily valuable lobster grounds.” Islanders make up less than 1 percent of Maine residents, but they hold 9 percent of the lobster licenses. That reliance on a single industry is both a strength and a weakness of the island communities.

The Swans Island town Web site goes out of its way to warn visitors that “Swans Island is not for everyone,” pointing out that there is “no theater, no boutiques, no country club.” That hasn’t stopped a small influx of recent new arrivals, encouraged, in part, apparently, by the island’s broadband Internet service.

“We have a guy on the island who teaches college courses over the Internet,” selectman Lee says. “Another guy moved here recently who runs a manufacturing business in the Midwest over the Internet. One of the new families, the wife used to vacation here. Her husband runs a high-end classic car trucking business — also over the Internet.”

The impact of high-speed Internet service is just beginning to be felt on the islands, Conkling says. “Broadband service penetrates about 80 percent of island homes these days,” he notes. “We’re not seeing a deep impact from that yet, but there is definitely an uptick.”

Eric Dyer, town administrator for Chebeague Island in Casco Bay, suspects that the islands are just starting to see a synergy between the freedom of movement offered by the Internet and the lure of small-town life offered by island communities. “The Internet allows people to live where they want to live, not where they have to live,” he observes. “A lot of our residents now have jobs based on telecommuting or at least being able to work from home for a significant portion of the week.”

Dyer echoes many other islanders when he says that the quality of life is a major attraction. “Everyone knows everyone else, and the summer community is well integrated into the island life,” he explains. “People like the idea of island life as a good place to raise their children. I’m actually seeing a lot of interest from younger families. We have our own school system, and the student-teacher ratio is tremendous. It’s just a great place to live.”

At the other end of the interest spectrum are retirees, often ex-islanders moving back after a career on the mainland or former summercators who decide to live their vacations year-round. Retirees have become major factors in some island communities, and demographically the islands have a considerably larger percentage of older residents than Maine as a whole. Forty percent of islanders were 55 and older in 2010, compared to 30.4 percent of Mainers overall.

“Some of it is aging among the island population,” notes Islesboro’s Miller, “but it’s also due to an increasing number of people retiring to the island from elsewhere.” Miller says the island’s sense of community and safety are factors, as well as the fact that it has frequent and dependable ferry service for medical care. “We have a [physician’s assistant] available on the island 24/7,” he says. “And the presence of retirees attracts other retirees. Maybe we’re getting a reputation as an offshore retirement mecca.”

“I expected that the Island Indicators report would show island communities were aging and attracting retirees,” notes Rob Snyder, who takes over as president of the Island Institute next year. “I was pleasantly surprised, though, by the benefits of that [finding]. The retirees seem to be unique in the talents and resources they are bringing to these communities. They seem to have a talent for dealing with the challenges of self-sufficiency. On Swans Island, for example, they found specialists with technical expertise in energy issues just as the island was wrestling with the problems about its power supply.”

The islands will have to take advantage of every asset they can muster in the coming years.Island Indicators 2012 found, for example, that the number of children aged five and under had dropped from 263 in 1990 to 180 in 2010, while housing prices, even if declining slightly, still put homeownership beyond the reach of many potential island residents. Since 2001, island property valuation had increased by 166 percent compared to 114 percent for the mainland. A major influence, of course, is the proportionately higher percentage of waterfront property on the islands.

“Out on the islands, economic diversification is at the top of everyone’s concern these days,” Snyder says. “They have great schools and an outstanding quality of life, but they also need employment opportunities.”

Snyder sees the Internet as a potentially powerful tool for island growth, along with new investments in shellfish culture, seaweed, and other mariculture opportunities. “Isle au Haut, North Haven, and Peaks already have shellfish companies,” Snyder notes. “People on the islands will need greater shock absorbers to protect their livelihoods in the future.”

“The island way of life isn’t for everybody,” points out Conkling, “but for those who are compelled by the idea of knowing your neighbor, participating in a shared community life, living in a unique place with unique challenges and benefits, islands can’t be beat.”