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Bam! Pow! Whoosh! Like modern-day superheroes, two men are jousting with weapons that look dangerously real on the front porch of a wooden building in rural Harrison.
We’re in Burgundar, an 11-acre swampy forest and make-believe village that aims to be the “perfect place for the imagination to run wild.”
The site, whose Medieval-style central square includes a tower, outdoor fire pit and rounded apothecary hut for witches, is rented out to live-action role-playing games, or LARPs. A six-member board of directors owns and manages the business.
After dark, solar power illuminates the buildings, which have kerosene heat for colder nights.
Games, which have ratings similar to movies, cover themes from the post-apocalyptic to cyberpunk and science fiction, and usually take place over the course of an entire weekend on the grounds of business set up as a low-profit limited liability company, or L3C. The designation allows Burgundar as an entity serving a community purpose to accept volunteer work and donations as a nonprofit would, but with legal protections similar to a limited liability corporation.
For today’s impromptu demo, board members Doug Andrews and Dylan Sirois are wielding padded, lightweight boffer props used to simulate combat in games set at Burgundar. This weekend it will be Star Hunter II, a PG-13 sci-fi/cyberpunk scenario that Andrews describes as a “mash-up of ‘Star Wars’ and other 70s-era sci-fi films and cowboy westerns.”
To create a futuristic flair, this weekend’s game runner plans to string brightly colored lights around the buildings — many of which are made from white pine — and use black light to play off characters’ costumes “so that it looks weird and different,” according to Sirois.
“Ultimately,” he says, “we’re aiming for a kind of a Scandinavian aesthetic.”
Such is the immersive world of scripted-meets-improvisational make-believe at Burgundar, which charges $175 to $750 for LARP game rentals and a flat rate of $1,000 for weddings. With 25 bookings so far this year, 12 weekends were still available as of early June.
Burgundar is one of several unique small businesses in western Maine, which SCORE mentor Ted Hatch attributes to the people.
“The communities in western Maine,” he says, “have been supportive of these new startups, and the entrepreneurs have been especially effective with their outreach.” He has observed that firsthand with Sirois and Andrews, part of a group that took over management of Burgundar in 2019 from founder Noah Hersom, who still owns the land.
Along similar lines, SCORE Maine District Director Steve Veazey attributes the region’s startup appeal partly to its attraction as a place to live.
“Many people come to western Maine to take advantage of the affordability of the lakes and mountains region and to enjoy the local lifestyle,” the Norway resident says. “Some of those people bring new ideas and start new businesses, while others provide support as consumers for interesting small businesses in the region.”
In Bethel, Beth Weisberger is a teacher-turned-entrepreneur who boomeranged back to Maine in 2019. Born in Augusta, she grew up in Winthrop and was teaching high school science in New York City public schools when she started Gneiss Spice as a side hustle in 2009.
Then living in a Brooklyn apartment with a jam-packed spice cabinet, she improvised a honeycomb-like rack of containers with magnetic lids that was an organizational game-changer.
“We had a tiny kitchen with no storage space but high ceilings, so the only way to store things was to go up vertically,” she recalls. “I had seen tin canisters with magnetic bottoms before and thought that I could do something with an airtight glass jar.”
From a canning website she ordered a hexagon-shaped honey jar, then experimented with magnets of different strengths until she found one to hold the heavy glass jar to the fridge. After designing her own spice system, she filled orders from family and friends, then turned her hobby into a business.
She opened an Etsy store in 2009, started selling on Amazon in 2012 and created her own Shopify website in 2016 with $14,000 raised from a crowdfunding campaign. The former geology major named her company (whose name rhymes with “nice”) after a type of metamorphic rock found in Maine, and because “rock people just like puns.”
Today, she runs Gneiss Spice from her home in Bethel, a town of 2,623 in Oxford County that also happens to be the location of the Maine Mineral & Gem Museum. She employs a remote workforce of six employees, selling jars and spice systems along with more than 300 herbs, spices, salts, popcorn seasonings and sprinkles.
Weisberger and her husband also own a local cinema that closed for a year during the pandemic, when business took off for Gneiss Spice to feed the surge in home cooking and baking.
Today, 92% of Gneiss Spice customers are out of state, led by orders from California, Oregon, Utah, New York and Florida, with the rest in Canada and other countries.
Weisberger was honored by the U.S. Small Business Administration Maine District Office as 2019’s home-based business of the year and participated in an SBA business development program for emerging leaders last year. Among other requirements, participating businesses must have annual revenues of at least $250,000.
“Beth Weisberger took a problem many of us have and came up with not only an innovative, but also gorgeous, solution,” says Diane Sturgeon, district director for the SBA’s Maine District Office. “She’s created a business with a conscience that is focused on not only sustainability but success, and she’s proven that it can be done in rural Maine.”
Western Maine is also home to two small businesses run by retired military veterans.
One is retired Air Force Major Jeffrey Holley, an Idaho native who served in the military for more than 25 years and whose road trip with Koda, a Siberian rescue Husky, led him to Maine.
He settled in West Paris, buying an 11-acre property where he now lives with his son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter, and founded an outdoor center called Ripple Retreat.
The concept was inspired by his best friend in the Army who was killed in Iraq “and left a ripple in my life to make a difference,” Holley says. “I’m a recovering alcoholic and I want to open up an area that is positive and makes positive ripples in the world.”
He’ll host a women’s retreat for free this month, and the plan is to host day and evening groups starting in September 2024. Set up as a for-profit enterprise, Ripple Retreat has pledged to donate 75% of the profits to the town of West Paris and to one local charity a year, starting with the Norway-based Pink Feather Foundation.
“When I started this business, everyone said, ‘Why not [launch] a nonprofit?’” Holley says. “But that would require having board members, and I want to be able to decide to give away as much money as I want. I hope this actually catches on and sets an example for the community.”
He’s so community-focused, that he’s even missed a few business milestones, “which reflects favorably on him,” says Holley’s SCORE mentor, Ted Hatch. Last year, Holley organized a benefit concert to finance construction of a new house for a neighbor whose abode was destroyed by fire.
Holley’s plans for Ripple Retreat include renting out a six-bedroom house to guests and hosting weddings. The former globetrotter says he’s felt at home in West Paris since neighbors pitched in last June with the benefit concert and building a stage. “The humanity and sense of community here makes it an honor to call West Paris my new home,” he says. “I hope to only enhance the community with my and my family’s presence, our ripple.”
In Turner, Dan Fitzsimmons is another business owner with a military background.
The retired Army helicopter pilot, who has graduate degrees in homeland security and terrorism and a doctorate in strategic security, runs a center offering training in self-defense and non-lethal firearms as well as a laser range. Called 24/7 Defense Training, the business bills itself as western Maine’s premier defense center.
“This is self-defense training, but it’s not like martial arts,” says Fitzsimmons, who also advises churches all over New England on safety and security. “We’re teaching people skills to protect themselves. Most of the time I’m focusing on what we call disengaging or de-escalation skills to slow everything down, so it doesn’t become a problem.”
As for firearms training, Fitzsimmons says it’s in response to demand from local gun store owners.
“They’ve been selling literally thousands of firearms to people with no training at all, so they’re [the owners] actually in my corner on this one,” he says. “This is about how to be safe so that you don’t get hurt or hurt someone else.”
He opened the business on March 3 and employs three instructors, soon to be joined by a fourth.
On the road a lot for his church consulting work, Fitzsimmons says, “One side of the business supports the other. The classes help me fund the training and protection of all these congregations all over New England. It’s a symbiotic kind of thing.”
Fitzsimmons, who grew up in Connecticut, moved with his family to Auburn in 1989. The 67-year-old hopes to keep working for a long time, possibly opening other training centers later on.
“I’m not in this to get rich,” he says, “but to help other people.”
Western Maine’s small-business boom isn’t limited to rural areas. In Lewiston, Abdirahman Saeed and Abdinur Mohamed run Black Diamond Detailing, the city’s first Black- and Somali-owned car-detailing business.
The longtime friends launched Black Diamond as a mobile operation in early 2022 before opening a garage last November at 409 Sabattus St., about a mile from City Hall. Prices range from $35 for an exterior hand wash and tire clean to $145 for a two-hour deep clean of SUVs, trucks and vans. The duo, who also offer regular price promotions, set out to be affordable to everyone in the community and report that business is going well.
Mohamed’s background is in nonprofit health care management, while Saeed was pursuing general studies at Central Maine Community College in Auburn and seeking new momentum during the pandemic. In November 2021, they brainstormed ideas for a commercial venture and decided on car-detailing, with a name meant to evoke the process of applying pressure and heat to carbon to create a precious gem — and Black Diamond Detailing was born.
They self-financed the operation and enrolled in Top Gun, a 12-week startup accelerator program run by the Maine Center for Entrepreneurs that gave them a handle on various aspects of running a business from budgeting to marketing.
Though the duo had looked at various other locations during a fruitless 30-day search before jumping on the sudden Sabattus Street opportunity, they are happy to be in their hometown.
“It’s shown me that with the right team and an open mind mentality, anything is possible,” Saeed says. Echoing that sentiment, Mohamed says he finds fulfillment “in knowing I am making a positive impact in this community, particularly by inspiring the youth to believe in themselves and realize their own potential.” Later down the road, they hope to expand elsewhere in Maine.