ROCKPORT — Engaged leaders from the construction and restaurant trades, concerned citizens, and representatives from local agencies and trade organizations convened at Camden National Bank earlier this week to discuss issues challenging Maine businesses, brainstorm solutions, and blaze a path for increased business resilience through collective action.

Bettina Doulton, owner of Phi Builders + Architects and Cellardoor Winery, and Kerry Altiero, Citizen Chef and Owner of Café Miranda, led the spirited discussion attended by Camden National Bank, the Unity Foundation, Rockport Economic Development, Hospitality Maine, Maine State Dept. of Labor, and the Small Business Administration.

Peter Berke, owner of North Atlantic Painting, set the tone for the lively conversation: “The elephants in the room are the skilled labor shortage and the housing issue. We need to figure out how to get people here. Everyone’s talking about it, but no one is getting together. Like hospitality, the building trade needs a huge labor force, but we can’t house them. It’s a chicken and egg issue.”

The unifying theme that emerged from the round table discussion was options for harnessing the inherent strength and diverse skill sets of Midcoast Mainers, expanding the talent pool, while channeling the influx of federal dollars to insulate businesses in uncertain economic times. Concerns about inflationary pressures, scarcity of housing, and the increasing complexity of doing business were expressed repeatedly by the vocal group.

“The real opportunity and where we see a high level of vested interest, is to connect expertise, businesses, funders and existing initiatives” Doulton said. “Our intent is to build collective ecosystems in the Midcoast which can identify targeted strategic programs to garner scale, efficiency and effectiveness.”

Thought leaders agreed it was time to look beyond the competitive nature of local business and approach their challenges in solidarity. Taking a collaborative approach, people discussed the potential for shared service models to provide accounting, human resources and other back office support for small businesses.

Altiero shared how a cooperative effort would benefit the restaurant industry with the support of a key partner.

“It’s time to start a different conversation,” Altiero said. “We need to work together and lower our costs and combine our purchase power, whether that’s food, toilet paper, internet services or fuel. It is my hope that Hospitality Maine will take the lead in pursuing funding for a pilot project in Knox County, and provide the infrastructure to administer it.”

Keeping Midcoast stakeholders, its small businesses, non-profits, and community, at the core of these efforts was determined the immediate priority. Further, promoting the Midcoast as an attractive destination for younger generations who want both fulfilling work and quality of life is viewed as critical importance.

Larry Sterrs, chairman of the Board for Camden National Bank and chairman of the Unity Foundation, closed the conversation saying, “To do something meaningful, it will require a specific funded effort. I’m a big fan of pilot projects. Find something we can do, in a collaborative way, make sure it’s scalable, fund it, and then market it all over the place.”

Members of the public who are interested in attending future Midcoast Business Resiliency Conversations and Action Planning, can find events announced on Phi Builders Architects and Café Miranda Rockland Facebook pages.