Our Story

To help people and communities, particularly those with low incomes, reach an adequate and equitable standard of living, working and learning, in harmony with the natural environment.

CEI Mission Statement, 2002

From Civil Rights to Sustainable Solutions

Coastal Enterprises, Inc. (CEI) was founded in 1977 by Ron Phillips, a civil rights activist and recent seminary graduate, to help create income, employment and ownership opportunities, especially for people left out of the economic mainstream.

The impetus for CEI came from a few people who had the imagination to establish a community development corporation (CDC) in Maine. The federal Office of Equal Opportunity launched CDCs in the late ’60s and early ’70s during the “War on Poverty” with the first CDCs founded primarily in urban areas with goals of revitalizing a low- or moderate-income community or neighborhood. Then a CDC in Vermont showed that the model might have promise for larger, more rural geographies as well. At the time, Maine had little infrastructure to grow the state economy and the fishing industry, in particular, could benefit from a CDC’s focus.

CEI was incorporated in Bath, Maine with no balance sheet and a goal of supporting community-based economic development in the midcoast Maine region stretching from Freeport to Camden – a start-up with a big need for investment capital to meet big goals.

Initial funding to launch CEI came from local regional Community Action Agencies and small grants cobbled together from varied sources. Local county commissioners’ offices helped CEI employees build the capacity of organization. Though the idea of a public-private partnership is familar today, the model was still new then.

Dennis Rice, manager of Boothbay Region Fish and Cold Storage, Inc., with Senator George Mitchell.

Starting by the Sea – a Sectoral Approach

In 1978, CEI made its first investment in the Boothbay Region Fish and Cold Storage, Inc., which had been recently destroyed by a fire. This was a flagship project for CEI for many reasons. Saving the facility was a community initiative, an effort to preserve the town’s working waterfront and fishing heritage in the face of deepening development pressure from tourism-related business. CEI worked with local residents and community leaders on the project and secured financing that allowed the group to rebuild, modernize and expand the facility after a devastating fire.

The Boothbay project was a model for future CEI activity, demonstrating our capacity to respond to a community need and foreshadowing our commitment to sectorial development strategies, a multi-faceted approach that includes investing in capacity, market opportunities, infrastructure and policy development.

Some early sector-based initiatives have included:

  • Aquaculture Development Workshop, Maine Small Farms Project, and forestry woodlot management initiatives (1977)
  • The Child Care Development Project (1988)
  • Maine Fisheries Industry Project (1993)

Today we continue to work deeply within the fishing/aquaculture, agriculture/ food systems and child care industries with targeted programming, support and financing.

To help create economically and environmentally healthy communities in which all people, especially those with low incomes, can reach their full potential.

CEI Mission Statement, 2007
Unveiling of the White House proposal of the CDFI Fund Program in 1993, CEI founder Ron Phillips at far right.

Advocacy & Policy

In the early 1990s, CEI was part of a coalition that promoted the development of a federal funding program for community economic development. In 1994, the Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) Fund was established as part of the U. S. Treasury to provide a key source of capital to CDCs offering financial services to low-income rural and urban communities.

In 1994, CEI became the first certified Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) in Maine under the new program and formalizes its policy work with the formation of a research and policy development department. Today we work at both the state and federal level to advocate for policies and programs that assist low-income individuals and communities.

Ahmeed Abbas, StartSmart Client in his bakery/restaurant Ameera Bread

Meeting the Needs of Diverse Entrepreneurs

Through our partnership with Maine Small Business Development Centers, we host business counselors who provide no cost, one-on-one assistance to potential and existing business owners throughout the state, supporting entrepreneurs in Maine’s cities and it’s most rural regions.

Recognizing that the potential of female entrepreneurs was being under-served, CEI opened Maine’s first Women’s Business Center in 1995. Supported by the US Small Business Administration, CEI’s two Women’s Business Centers now serve Northeast and Southwest Maine through workshops, training, networking and one-on-one business counseling.

Then seeing a growing influx of refugees and immigrants to Maine in the mid-1990s, CEI responded by designing programs to serve Maine’s newest residents. StartSmart, a microenterprise program that provides linguistically and culturally sensitive business training to refugees and immigrants, has helped entrepreneurs from over 92 countries of origin and a rich variety of backgrounds to bring new products and services to their communities.

Recognizing the unmet need in the local indigenous community, CEI staff members helped the Wabanaki tribes in Maine launch Four Directions Development Corporation in 2001, the first Native-led CDFI in Northern New England.

CEI Subsidiaries: Expanding Access to Capital and Rural Reach

Groundbreaking at Columbia Pulp Wheat Straw Plant in Lyons Ferry, WA, 2018

While CEI’s primary market remains in Maine, with the birth of subsidiaries CEI Ventures Inc (CVI) in 1994 and CEI Capital Management LLC (CCML) in 2004, we expanded the overall organziation’s reach to northern New England and then to rural regions nationally.

These independently-governed subsidiaries allow the organization to utilize different types of capital (venture capital and tax-credit incentivized financing) that are typically less accessible in rural areas and allows us finance projects that build on the our sectoral experience in areas like food processing and forest products, as well as our expertise on the unique needs of rural communities. This model continues in the creation of further subsidiaries with capital type or sector expertise in the late 2010s like 30FSI (historic tax credits) and Bright Community Capital (solar energy financing).

President Keith Bisson and CEO Betsy Biemann

A New Generation of Leadership

In 2016, Betsy Biemann, CEO, and Keith Bisson, President took over the leadership of CEI upon Ron Phillips’ retirement.

In 2018, following a strategic planning process with its staff and Board, CEI leadership developed a revised mission that built on the original CEI mission to focus on three key components to help build an economy that works for everyone:

CEI helps to grow good jobs, environmentally sustainable enterprises, and shared prosperity in Maine and other rural regions by integrating financing, business and industry expertise, and policy solutions.

We envision a world in which communities are economically and environmentally healthy, enabling all people, especially those with low incomes, to reach their full potential.

CEI Mission & Vision Statement, 2018