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LISC NMTC financing helps keep sustainable oyster jobs on rural Tilghman Island

On Tilghman Island, a rural community with a year-round population under 800 in the Chesapeake Bay, Phillips Wharf Environmental Center (PWEC) is fostering an appreciation for the bay, its wildlife, and the people that care for and harvest its resources. Its mission is not only to conserve the Chesapeake Bay as a natural resource, but to create quality jobs for residents along its shores as well. PWEC recently received a $550,000 loan from LISC’s Growing Rural Communities (GRC) Fund to purchase an oyster aquaculture business and begin an apprenticeship program that supports quality jobs for oystermen.

Tilghman Island has a rich history in the oyster industry and most of Maryland’s licensed oystermen and women are residents. In the past few decades, however, overharvesting, disease, and lower water quality have diminished the Chesapeake Bay’s oyster supply and weakened the local economy.

“The island’s economy has been adversely affected by the diminishing oyster harvest,” says Kelley Phillips Cox, founder of PWEC. “We recently lost our bank and we are on the brink of losing our school. Young people are not encouraged to work the water, they are not following in their families’ footsteps, and our heritage is being lost.”

Kelley is a marine biologist, resident of Tilghman Island, and part of a five-generation family of oyster watermen. She launched PWEC in 2005 because she wanted to create a place where the local community could come together and learn about the bay, bay animals, aquaculture, and oyster harvesting. She named the organization after her father, Garland Phillips, who was an oyster waterman and owner of Phillips Wharf Seafood. Kelley envisions PWEC’s aquaculture apprenticeship program as a way to revitalize the industry, help watermen receive year-round income through sustainable harvesting techniques, and encourage younger watermen to stay in the area.

Fourth graders learn about oysters in a PWEC education program.
Fourth graders learn about oysters in a PWEC education program.

The GRC Fund financing will enable PWEC to purchase an existing aquaculture business, including its equipment and a five-acre water column lease to harvest oysters, and refinance existing business debt at a much more affordable rate to support the sustainability of the training program.

“The ability to purchase an already established oyster farm advances our program by three years,” says Kelley.

The GRC Fund, a partnership with Northern Trust, provides low-interest loans to businesses and nonprofit organizations in low-income rural areas to spur economic development and job creation. Businesses and nonprofits can use the loans to purchase real estate and finance construction costs. The Fund utilizes $7.5 million of federal New Markets Tax Credits to provide more favorable rates and terms to borrowers, including a fixed 2% interest rate and a three-year interest-only period.

“Rural communities face unique challenges both in accessing capital and sustaining quality jobs for residents in a 21st-century economy,” says Kristin Blum, Director of Lending for Rural LISC. “The GRC Fund makes low-cost capital available to projects like PWEC that promote rural economic development. By training existing oyster watermen in new aquaculture techniques, PWEC will help advance a sustainable oyster industry and keep people working.”  

“We need to help young people stay in our community and make a decent living. Oyster aquaculture is the answer to keeping Tilghman Island viable.”
— Kelley Phillips Cox, founder of PWEC

PWEC plans to train five apprentices in oyster aquaculture in its first year and expand to 10 apprentices after securing more acreage. The apprenticeship program will teach sustainable aquaculture to watermen who currently practice wild oyster harvesting, with priority given to low-income individuals and community residents.

“We’re creating an incubator so that for the first few years working in aquaculture, these watermen don’t have to invest in their own equipment,” explains Kelley. “They can use ours and once they have completed our program and have their own lease, they’ll receive an equipment stipend.”

The apprentices will each receive hourly wages and one acre to farm. PWEC is partnering with the University of Maryland Extension to provide entrepreneurship training in marketing and business planning to the apprentices. Additionally, PWEC plans to create an aquaculture curriculum for middle and high school students who will support the apprentices during harvest.    

With the new apprenticeship program, Kelley will help ensure that future generations of watermen continue to call Tilghman Island home.

“We need to help young people stay in our community and make a decent living,” says Kelley. “Oyster aquaculture is the answer to keeping Tilghman Island viable.”

To learn more about the GRC Fund and our Fund Management work, please contact Brynn Sanders.