Through multiple partnerships, Patrick Arnold of Soli DG is redefining waterfront development in Portland.
The Eimskip shipping containers rise above the horizon like a stack of Legos. Cobalt blue and barn red, the corrugated metal rectangles make a surprisingly cheerful sight, an orderly arrangement of bright colors tucked away behind a chain link fence on Commercial Street. If I could see over the Eimskip- emblazoned blocks, I would be looking at the winter waves of the Atlantic and the sturdy pillars of the Casco Bay Bridge. But the working waterfront is currently at work, and instead I turn my attention to the small office of the Maine Port Authority, where entrepreneur Patrick Arnold is waiting for lunch.
Arnold has been preparing for the Icelandic shipping company’s Nordic-themed holiday gala that will take place later this evening at the Ocean Gateway. He’s filled with energy, and I can’t decide whether it’s because he is looking forward to the event (Eimskip’s annual party raises between $70,000 and $80,000 each year for various children’s charities) or if maybe the businessman always talks, walks, and thinks this quickly. I suspect it’s the latter. In addition to serving as the operations and business development manger for the Maine Port Authority, Arnold is also the founder of Soli DG, a consulting company based out of Portland that has irons in a number of rapidly heating fires. He’s involved in promoting Maine-based food processing, getting the word out about Maine fisheries, and, through the New England Ocean Cluster, investing in biopharmaceuticals and creating opportunities for sustainable aquaculture. These private-sector hotspots have one thing in common: they all require cold storage, the development of which Arnold says is the “next strategic step for capacity building on the waterfront.” Maine, he says, has three major potential growth areas— food processing, biopharmaceuticals, and aquaculture (as identified in a report published by the private business-development group FocusMaine in early 2016). “Cold storage is the infrastructure necessary to have that growth,” Arnold says, and he wants nothing more than to see Portland and Maine grow. He believes that the city is not only in an excellent position to become a major North American shipping hub, but that it could be the next great travel destination for cruise ships, too.
Before founding Soli DG in 2007, Arnold spent years traveling around the world as a Merchant Marine. From the ages of 18 to 25, the South Portland native spent his time working as a navigation officer, docking in ports around the globe and learning all along the way. During one trip aboard a Norwegian Cruise Line ship, he met another employee, a young performer named Janeen Rigattieri. “We got married a few years later on the beach where we first met in Hawaii,” he says. Having found the love of his life, Arnold decided to settle down. “In the summer of 2007, Janeen and I were on vacation from the cruise ships, and we decided to pray about it,” he remembers. “I decided I had reached the pinnacle of that career, and it was time to start something new.”
Even though he was vastly overqualified, he asked to intern with the City of Portland. “They asked me if I wanted to be the manager of cruises, or if I wanted some other title,” he says with a laugh. “I said I wanted my title to be intern. I wanted to learn everything, and interns can learn everything.” He attended meetings about the expansion of the Portland International Jetport and the development of the Ocean Gateway, and his interest was piqued. “It was an eye-opening learning experience to sit in on these sessions and see how the ins and outs of big development worked,” he said. The idea of becoming invested in a long-term project was appealing to Arnold, and he could already identify some areas where he might be of use.
Arnold recognized that when it came to business development, there was a fundamental gap between what was happening at a state level and what was going on at a local level. Portland was going in one direction, while Maine was steering toward another. “I also noticed that there was a disconnect between water-based industries and land-based industries,” he says. “I thought someone had to invest in healing that relationship. That if someone in the private sector helped bridge that gap, great things could happen.” He talked it over with Janeen, and they decided to start Soli DG together, naming the company a shortened version of the Latin phrase Soli Deo gloria, or “to God alone be the glory.” It’s a nod to their shared faith, and a continual reminder of one of its key tenets. “When you allow yourself to be humbled, by God or by others, it opens the door to acceptance,” says Arnold. “It lets us be open to diversity, to change, and to new opportunities.”
Ten years later, Soli DG continues in this mission. Arnold has become known
for embracing unconventional business opportunities, melding commerce with arts, infrastructure initiatives with culture. “It feels a little weird to say we’re a community developer, but I don’t know what else to call us,” he says. Soli DG has partnered with Eimskip, the Maine Port Authority, Bristol Seafood, MDI Biological
Laboratory, the University of Southern Maine, the University of New England, and other businesses, both local and international. He’s worked to help connect ports throughout the state, uniting them under a marketing organization called CruiseMaine. As its director, Arnold has been forging connections with entities such as Cruise Canada New England with the shared goal of drawing more travelers to the East Coast. He believes that together, New England and eastern coastal Canada can become a destination that competes with popular cruise locales such as Alaska and the Baltic region.
Arnold also believes that Scandinavia’s approach to marine development offers a prime example for Maine. During his extensive travels, he observed that many Nordic countries blend sectors that Americans often consider intrinsically separated. “When we’re talking about community development, we need to embrace all the different areas,” he says. “It’s not just about business or profits, but also education, health care, art, culture, music.” In order to “trigger a renaissance or inspire wild growth,” Arnold argues that Maine needs to break down the silos that separate northern Maine and southern Maine, Maine arts and Maine businesses, and Maine’s inland and coast.
One way that Soli DG is working to spur growth is through inviting artists on board ships, sponsoring trips between Maine and Iceland. In 2015, Portland-based interdisciplinary artist Justin Levesque approached Soli DG and Eimskip about traveling on board one of their boats to Iceland. After receiving their support, Levesque secured a grant from the Maine Arts Commission.
The result is a body of work called ICELANDX207, which pairs portraits of workers shot on the transatlantic journey with stories of their lives, displayed in a shipping container. Like Arnold, Levesque believes that it’s important to “dismantle certain barriers that folks have in how they think about their relationship to business or trade.” Levesque continues, “When you bake together arts and commerce, it creates new access points and new chances for innovation.” The Maine Beer Box is a similar initiative, created in partnership with the Maine Brewers Guild. In June 2017, a refrigerated Eimskip shipping container outfitted with 78 taps from 40 Maine breweries was transported to Iceland to promote Maine craft beer. The container was subsequently filled with beer from Iceland and returned to Maine.
Arnold is also working on some projects closer to home, including the Sunaana music festival, inspired by a similar event in Iceland. Over the course of two days in March 2017, guests listened to music from near and far, sampled craft beverages, and enjoyed a series of artistic performances at Thompson’s Point. If that sounds a bit eclectic, that’s OK. Sunaana means, “What is it?” in Greenlandic, and the tagline for the festival is, “What is Sunaana?”
“It’s our wild, beautiful, artistic music festival,” says Arnold effusively. He views this unique event, which is scheduled for March 2-3 this year, as a way of modeling the kind of silo-bursting acceptance he wants to see in the world. “We’re trying to draw people in, and to get them out of that standard way of thinking about arts and their community.” Arnold believes that embracing aspects of one’s self—the businessman that lives inside the artist, the CEO that does interpretive dance, the scientist who also loves to sing—will lead to creative growth and a more joyous, open culture. “Community development needs to be the responsibility of us all,” he says. And when we embrace each other, openheartedly and without reservations, good things are bound to happen.