Maine has more in common with Nordic Countries than New Jersey
When Ben Ford goes out for dinner in Reykjavik he heads to restaurant Kol, where he’s assured a delicious meal and top notch service from his favourite waiter, Friðrik. The fact that Ford, an attorney at Verrill Dana LLP in Portland spends enough time in Iceland to have, not just a favourite restaurant, but a favourite waiter, shows the commitment he and his firm are making to the North Atlantic and Arctic region.
“I think Arctic development will be the number one driver of Maine’s economic growth for the next generation,” says Ben Ford.
Ford makes that assertion based on what he sees as the re-discovery of Portland’s deep water port as a hub of economic activity. The port has undergone a resurgence since 2013, when Icelandic shipping company Eimskip moved its US headquarters to Maine. Shipping traffic through Portland has grown enough that Eimskip is now adding weekly service to Portland, increasing from 36 to 52 calls per year, a 45% jump.
Shortly after Eimskip announced its plans to come to Maine, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, then President of Iceland, spoke at an international trade event in Maine and encouraged the state to create an office dedicated to exploring the opportunities that could develop from this new relationship. Later that year, the Maine North Atlantic Development Office, MENADO, became a reality, and Dana Eidsness was asked to lead the organization.
“I had been in international economic development for twenty years and I had always wanted to focus on a region, market or industry sector and this gave me a little bit of each,” said Eidsness. Within a week of being on the job she traveled to Iceland for Eimskip’s 100th birthday celebration. The idea was to build not just contacts, but relationships.
“This office is connecting Maine on a cultural, geo-political and business level, all equally important to rekindle a long standing relationship with the North Atlantic.”
So says Eimskip's USA Managing Director Larus Isfeld, who sees future growth and the sustainability of the port in Portland based on a combination of growing these relationships. "Historically, Maine has had strong business connections with Europe, trading across the North Atlantic for centuries, until around 50 years ago. We saw a great opportunity in re-establishing that tradition with operating from the port of Portland across the North Atlantic to the northern part of Europe," says Isfeld.
Dana Eidsness found early on that Maine shared more than just a cold climate with Nordic countries, but also people with similar values and interests.
“Maine has more in common with Nordic countries than we do with New Jersey. Our coastal communities, small enterprises, resource utilization, sustainability of industry, these are all common threads," says Eidsness.
For people in the Nordic region, seeing Maine as an Arctic state and a High North stakeholder took a bit of time.
“At first I didn’t quite understand why the business community of Maine was so interested in the Arctic. But through collaboration with Dana Eidsness and meeting businesses through the MENADO effort, I have learned to see Maine as one of the most important players when it comes to establishing international business development in the high North Atlantic,” says Nils Arne Johnsen, the Norwegian founder of the High North Business Alliance. Nils Arne is a former Arctic director at Ramboll in Tromsö and has through extensive and diverse work across the North Atlantic region gained a good overview of cross border opportunities for business collaboration between North Norway, Maine, Iceland, Greenland, The Faroe Islands and Canada.
The mission of MENADO, which operates under the umbrella of the Maine International Trade Center, gives companies in Maine a dedicated resource to help them explore business development. Rory Strunk, founder of O’Maine Studios in Portland, has been working with MENADO on a new venture called “Taste Maine’s Future,” a blueprint to unite the state’s ten major food regions.
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“The idea is to pull them together so there is a unified voice about their products, help them expand the sales channels of products outside of Maine,” said Strunk.
Sales channels include Iceland, Greenland and Norway. He has a vision of food producers from Maine traveling to these regions to showcase Maine food and beverage products and the people who make them.
Strunk has been looking to MENADO for guidance and access to Dana Eidsness’ growing rolodex of potential partners. “She’s attending all of these great conferences, she’s a first class networker, as a bird dog she can sniff out the right opportunities to match this company with this opportunity in this location.”
MENADO has organized trade missions to Iceland, Finland and Norway in recent years. Ireland is being organised for next fall and the plan is to add Greenland to the mix this spring. Hancock Lumber, a family owned building company with a long history in Maine, is anxious for that trip to Nuuk and the chance to try and sell its building products in a new market with a long history of timber as its main housebuilding material.
Mark Hopkins is the COO at Hancock Lumber. In meetings with Greenlandic officials he’s been told Greenland and its melting ice sheet is at the epicenter of climate change, making it an important stop for scientists and researchers. That’s lead to a need for more housing on the world’s largest island and Hancock would like to be one its building suppliers. The weekly Eimskip service from Maine to Greenland now makes it a plausible plan.
Eidsness estimates that well over one hundred Mainers from business, science and academic sectors, in addition to people in administration and state governance, have traveled to countries in the North Atlantic over the past three years to nurture and strengthen connections, many attending the Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik.
Another group was recently in Tromsö, North Norway for the Arctic Frontiers conference and side meetings with Norwegian officials, business owners and technical institutions.
For Christine Sawyer, MENADO provided an itinerary in Tromsö, allowing her to explore opportunities for her new business, Simply North, what Sawyer calls “a source of exploration and inspiration for unique, wild and healthy ingredients such as wild Nordic berries, wild mushrooms, edible balsam fir, boreal spices and herbs, and wild salmon.”
The delegation from Maine in Tromsö also included academics, as has been the case with other MENADO delegations traveling to High North regions. “Connecting academia, science, arts and culture alongside the business agenda has from the beginning been a part of the big picture in developing Maine´s trade connections in the High North regions,” says Dana Eidsness.
MENADO has put a lot of effort on fostering educational connections, especially between Maine and Iceland alongside developing business opportunities.
Over the past two and a half years, over 80 graduate and undergraduate students from the University of Southern Maine, USM, have gone to Iceland for hands-on international educational experiences. USM has also hosted visiting faculty from the University of Iceland and the University of Akureyri in the fields of environmental science, public health, and gender studies.
MENADO was the driving force behind the effort to host a Senior Officials meeting of the Arctic Council in Portland, Maine in October of 2016. That event brought hundreds of people from across the globe with Arctic interests and agenda to Maine.
Based in part on the success of those meetings, the Arctic Economic Council, whose purpose is to facilitate Arctic business to business activities and responsible Arctic development, has brought MENADO on board as a non-voting member.
“I think MENADO membership is a great proof of our wish to link the Arctic market to the global value chain, for us MENADO is a significant member, it’s our first member from the lower 48 states in the US,” said Anu Fredrikson, the Director of the Arctic Economic Council Secretariat.
The invitation to join the AEC was an important recognition to Dana Eidsness that people are no longer asking why Maine is at the Arctic table. “Now, we’re expected. We have credibility as a partner and bring world class scientists, business people and entrepreneurs to important discussions,” said Eidsness.
Peter Rand is one of those entrepreneurs. A small oyster farmer in Harpswell, Maine, Rand heard Eidsness on the radio one day talking about the possibilities of new markets in the North Atlantic. He was intrigued enough to pick up the phone and call. She met with Rand and put him in touch with Ben Ford, who was already working with another oyster farmer in Casco Bay, Abigail Carroll from Nonesuch Oysters.
Carroll sells her oysters all over the US, and to trendy restaurants in New York City like the Grand Central Oyster Bar and Balthazar. She’s established, but sees a lot of farmers entering the market and a potential glut of oysters, which means new markets are going to be essential to success.
“There is going to be a learning curve, especially in Iceland where they are unaccustomed to eating oysters, but there seems to be a lot of interest and we had some visitors from Norway and Iceland on the farm last fall who were very excited about the product,” said Carroll.
The connections have been made, deals are being discussed, and Ben Ford is convinced it won’t be too long before Friðrik will be serving him a Maine oyster at his favourite restaurant in Reykjavik.
Marnie MacLean is JONAA's sectional editor for Maine. An award winning journalist with 23 years of experience in television news for stations in the Northeast US, including Boston and Maine, such as the NBC owned New England Cable News .