Like many nonprofit organizations, the Cobscook Community Learning Center in Trescott Township saw a gap between what it wanted to achieve and the money necessary to make it happen.
The focus of the learning center is advancing education, arts and music programs in Washington County, one of the most economically challenged parts of Maine.
Sensing that fundraisers and grants would not be a sustainable means of generating money, the learning center is collaborating with a local fishery to create a for-profit business and a new product.
Cobscook Bay Co. is set to begin distribution of Maine Fresh seafood pies to grocers this fall. The goal is not just funding the learning center's programs, but generating jobs and bringing money into the community.
It's an unlikely blending of nonprofit and for-profit interests, but all parties involved say success for Cobscook Bay Co. means success for the region.
"We're very excited about the fact that we're part of a trend, a movement to provide consumers with quality, value-added seafood from Maine," says Jeff Johnson, CEO of Cobscook Bay Co. "It has a better shot of creating steady employment for people instead of a straight distribution business. We're excited to be part of that."
Workers at Phinney Fisheries in Trescott Township are completing renovations to prepare for production of the Maine Fresh line, which will include shrimp, lobster, crab meat and scallop pies. The pies will retail for $6 to $9, depending on the type, and can be cooked in a conventional oven or microwave.
"We're working furiously now on picking and packing and putting in the freezer what lobster and crab meat we need," says John Phinney, COO of the joint venture.
The fishery is the main hub for Cobscook Bay Co., which falls under the umbrella of Periwinkle LLC. Phinney Fisheries owns 55% of Cobscook Bay Co. while Periwinkle owns 45%. Through Periwinkle, Cobscook Bay Co. will be able to channel revenue to support the learning center.
At the moment, Cobscook Bay Co.'s working capital comes from a combination of sources, including a $150,000 grant from the Great Bay Foundation, a $120,000 Community Development Block Grant and a $160,000 loan from Bar Harbor Bank and Trust.
The money has gone into creating packaging prototypes and recipe testing, but Phinney estimates they've spent $90,000 building out the packaging facility. Phinney purchased and rehabbed the space adjacent to his business — previously a nightclub — and has installed equipment to make crusts, fill pies and package the finished product.
Phinney says he's employing about seven people picking meat for the pies. They expect the number of employees to grow within a year. "I'm all about employing people here and keeping our kids here," Phinney says.
That's the genesis of Cobscook Bay Co., he says, as the workers and all of the ingredients in the pies will be local. Carrots, leeks, chives and other vegetables will come from area growers, as well as dairy and flour for the wheat crust.
"We're hoping that 80 to 90% of this will be sourced from Maine, hopefully Washington County," Phinney says.
The goal for the first year of business is to get the pies beyond Maine and into stores across New England, says Johnson. In 2011, they hope to reach $300,000 in sales, with a minimum of 25% of net profits going to the learning center, Johnson says.
"The amount of seafood that comes off the coast of Maine is internationally known and respected," he says. "That equity is only going to help us as we go across the country."
But Johnson says they're also counting on attracting consumers who are more socially conscious about how their food is sourced and its impact on a community. The packaging on each Maine Fresh pie notes that a portion of the proceeds supports the learning center.
The message, Johnson says, is that "a lot of people benefit from this purchase other than just you and your family."
The original plan for Cobscook Bay Co. was to create seafood chowder, but that was scrapped in favor of savory pies, a product seen as having a more wide-open market.
The man behind the idea was Alan Furth, executive director of the Cobscook Community Learning Center. For more than a decade, the center has provided education programs to people in the region. Furth saw a need to create a sustainable source of funding to continue the center's work.
Penny Guisinger, director of development and communications for the learning center, says its mission is the revitalization of the area through the people who live there.
They're responsible for alternative education for high school students, community gardening programs and artistic opportunities ranging from drawing to masonry and woodwork.
"The Cobscook Bay Co. fits into this because there was an awareness years ago that if we're going to lift up a region, we're not going to do it just with pottery classes," she says.
The dual benefits are obvious, Guisinger says, — as the company creates a market for local farmers and fishermen, profits will flow back into the learning center's enrichment programs.
That money is needed not just to operate — the center had more than $400,000 in expenses in 2008 according to tax documents — but also to grow. Since 2004, the center has been building on its 50-acre campus in Trescott, first with office space and later community and function space. A $2.2 million capital campaign to build a new facility is currently in the works.
"We want to move the organization beyond the annual scraping by," Guisinger says. "It takes a tremendous amount of time and staff work to raise money for the year. We want to build some continuity and sustainability into that."
Starting a new business from scratch is a difficult task, particularly for a nonprofit organization with limited resources. When it created Cobscook Bay Co., the learning center also formed an advisory committee to provide business support to the fledgling venture.
At the suggestion of a friend, John Heald, a retired executive with a background in printing and packaging, took a tour of the learning center and was intrigued by its plan for a new company. But he also knew it would take time, money and expertise the center didn't have to make Cobscook Bay Co. a reality.
"The advisory committee was based on the idea that we needed more professional support in particular areas: food marketing, logistics and operations, finance and project management," he says.
Heald says through the committee, the company was able to receive consulting in areas like branding and marketing that it would not otherwise have been able to afford. That includes James Beard Award-winning chef Sam Hayward of Portland restaurant Fore Street, who developed the recipes for the seafood pies and identified local ingredients.
Now that the company is close to launch, many on the advisory committee are on Cobscook Bay Co.'s board of directors. Heald says the company's potential to affect change in the region is what caused many to give their time.
"We understand the condition of the community and the health of the community in Washington County, one of the poorest counties in New England and possibly the country," Heald says. "We also understand that jobs can go a long way towards solving a whole spectrum of problems."
In August, the unemployment rate for Washington County was 9.3%, compared to Maine's rate of 8%.
According to U.S. Census data, the poverty rate in Washington County was 20.1% in 2008, the highest in Maine. That's significantly higher than Maine's poverty rate of 12% and the national rate of 13%.
A study released in July by the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine found that Washington County has the highest proportion of families seeking assistance for home heating oil, free or reduced lunch and SNAP, the new name for food stamp benefits.
The downturn in the national economy has had ripples across the country, some felt greater in Washington County, says Harold Clossey, executive director of the Sunrise County Economic Council.
"We've got a long ways to go, but maybe, hopefully, we're at the lowest point to go and the tide is turning," he says.
That tide could be from renewed interest in wind farms and tidal energy companies, but also the revitalization of traditional industries.
Clossey says the benefit of Cobscook Bay Co. is that it creates value-added products that support the entire region.
"A project comes along like the Cobscook Bay Co. and it's a nice addition to the economic activity in Washington County," Clossey says. "It's light manufacturing jobs in a value-added atmosphere."
Part of the reason Washington County has been so hard hit is because of the decline of legacy industries, as well as the migration of young talent out of the county. Clossey sees ventures like Cobscook Bay Co. as a way to counter that.
"We would like a balance. We need all types of business, from micro-entrepreneurs to retail, commercial and industrial, so we're not dependent on a single industry," he says.
Guiding a path to the revitalization of a region may seem like a large task for a new business. For Phinney, whose Down East roots go back generations, the Cobscook Bay Co. represents a turning point.
"It brings a tear to my eye when I think about it," he says. "For years we sent our youngest and brightest to go away to find opportunities for themselves. It makes me wonder what this area would be if we could keep them here."
Johnson says any success Cobscook Bay Co. sees is directly tied to its community. "The roots of our social mission have genuine ties to the community," he says.
As nonprofits continue to seek innovative ways to fund their work and more businesses become socially conscious, Johnson says he wouldn't be surprised to see the model created by the Cobscook Community Learning Center repeated.
They haven't just created a new healthy, all-natural dinner. It's the product of an entire community, he says.
"There's a power behind that. We think we have a very good-tasting product. But the basis in social responsibility gives the brand a lot more meaning," Johnson says.
Justin Ellis, a writer based in Portland, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.