To prepare for the Entrepreneur Ecosystem Project, Main Street America Chief Program Officer Matthew Wagner visited Houlton last fall to get a feel for the community. Credit: Courtesy Maine Street America and the Maine Development Center

HOULTON, Maine — Houlton is one of 10 Maine towns taking part in a national plan to nurture small businesses.

The only Aroostook County town involved, Houlton joins Ellsworth, Augusta, Bath, Belfast, Biddeford, Saco, Gardiner, Rockland and Westbrook in the national Main Street America 2022-23 Entrepreneur Ecosystem Project.

As post-pandemic remote working increases and home-based businesses blossom in rural areas, towns need supportive environments for entrepreneurs. More business owners mean a more bustling downtown, and that’s what Houlton Director of Community Development Nancy Ketch wants to see.

“This is a wonderful opportunity for us to evaluate the services available to assist our local entrepreneurs, and to not only determine where the gaps are, but do something to fill those gaps,” Ketch said.

Leaders can’t decide in a vacuum what will help business owners. They have to ask first. That’s why Houlton is listening before planning, Ketch said.

Last week, Ketch emailed a survey to local business owners designed to gauge where they need support and connect them to local resources. One survey question asks, if they had $1 million, how they would spend it to support local entrepreneurs. 

Ketch wants owners at various stages of their business lives to let the town know what they need. To expand outreach, Ketch encourages survey recipients to forward the survey to other local entrepreneurs.

Surveys must be returned by Feb. 12.

Town officials look forward to seeing the results come to fruition, she said.

Entrepreneurs are risk-takers with innovative ideas, and their energy brings new and sometimes out-of-the-box thinking that sparks a town’s vibrance and often increases the town’s economic resilience, National Main Street America Chief Program Officer Matthew Wagner said.

The Main Street Cooperative in Houlton in the fall of 2022. The northern Maine town is one of 10 communities across the state to take part in a nationally-funded program to help business growth in rural areas. Credit: Courtesy Maine Street America and the Maine Development Center

The ecosystem project is a partnership of the Maine Development Foundation, Maine Downtown Center and Main Street America, which aims to help towns develop better relationships with local business owners and, in doing so, revitalize their local economies.

Initially, the Maine Development Foundation, Maine Downtown Center and Main Street America completed an entrepreneur ecosystem pilot project with  Skowhegan, Lisbon and Monson.

In Skowhegan, for example, local entrepreneurs said the downtown lacked a dedicated facility such as a maker space or incubator. The findings led to the development of the downtown Skowhegan Center for Entrepreneurship.

Because of the success of the pilot programs, the ecosystem project received congressional funds through U.S. Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins. Each participating town will receive $10,000 for planning (meetings and meeting space) and $50,000 for project implementation. The project runs through March 2024.

Business ecosystem building is relatively new to economic development and downtown revitalization, especially in rural communities, Wagner said.

Most community entrepreneurial support systems are inefficient, he said.

Wagner visited Houlton in November and will return next week to lead a focus group with local business owners. He will meet with area stakeholders like the Small Business Administration, town government, Greater Houlton Chamber of Commerce, county government and educators.

He will evaluate the results and prepare individualized reports by early spring.

Similar to Skowhegan, Houlton town leaders will closely examine gaps from a business owners’ perspective and that may lead to changes or additional offerings.  But it’s too soon to know how that will look, Ketch said.  

“We want to let it evolve organically,” Ketch said.

Houlton’s leaders don’t have a full picture of what emerging businesses, especially home-based, are in the community, according to Ketch.

Outdated stereotypes of rural communities often hurt new business growth, but rural communities offer local resources and assets not found in more urban locations, according to a Brookings Institute 2020  report.

“Connected, strong ecosystems create communities where businesses want to locate and grow and this is especially important in rural Maine, ” Senior Program Director of Maine Development Foundation Anne Ball said. “These businesses add to the vibrancy and creativity of communities. ”

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Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli

Kathleen Phalen Tomaselli is a reporter covering the Houlton area. Over the years, she has covered crime, investigations, health, politics and local government, writing for the Washington Post, the LA...