ELLSWORTH, Maine — When it comes to population growth in Hancock County over the past decade, one geographical factor seems to stand out from the rest.
Generally, the less ocean shorefront property a municipality has, the faster its population grew.
The highest growth percentages for Hancock County municipalities, for the most part, occurred in its central communities away from the coast, according to 2010 census figures released recently by the U.S. Census Bureau. The towns of Amherst, Dedham, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Mariaville, Otis and Waltham, none of which have any ocean frontage, were seven of the nine fastest-growing towns in Hancock County from 2000 to 2010. Ellsworth, a city that has about two miles of ocean frontage on Union River Bay, was the fifth-fastest-growing municipality in the county over the past decade.
The town that grew the fastest is Frenchboro, a small offshore island town with only 61 residents. Its population grew by 23 people since 2000, giving it a 60 percent growth rate. Overall, Hancock County’s population grew by 5 percent between 2000 and 2010.
Ellsworth had the largest population increase, adding 1,285 residents since 2000 for a 2010 population of 7,741 and a growth rate of 19.9 percent. The second-highest population increase in Hancock County occurred in Bar Harbor, which added 415 residents since 2000 for an 8.6 percent growth rate. With 5,235 residents, Bar Harbor is the second-largest municipality in Hancock County, after Ellsworth.
The relatively small towns of Great Pond, Mariaville and Otis each grew by more than 23 percent since 2000. Great Pond added only 11 residents, however, whereas Mariaville gained 99 new residents and Otis grew by 129. All told, only 1,243 people — fewer than the number of new residents that Ellsworth gained in the past 10 years — live in those three towns.
Rounding out the top 10 fastest-growing towns in Hancock County are Dedham (18.2 percent), Waltham (15.4 percent), Amherst (15.2 percent), Eastbrook (14.3 percent) and the coastal town of Blue Hill (12.4 percent). Of those, Amherst has the smallest population with 265 residents while Blue Hill has the largest with 2,686.
Tom Martin, a planner with Hancock County Planning Commission, said recently that there are several likely factors for why interior Hancock County towns generally grew faster than their coastal counterparts. Some of these towns could be considered part of the double-digit growth in the suburban Bangor area, he said, but retail growth in Ellsworth and the increase in hotel and biomedical research jobs in Bar Harbor are more likely factors.
Ellsworth’s retail sector has grown significantly in the past decade, with Walmart opening a new supercenter and with Marden’s, Home Depot, Lowe’s, Walgreen’s and Hampton Inn among the many businesses that expanded to the city. During that time, in Bar Harbor the number of hotel rooms has increased and the number of people employed by The Jackson Laboratory has increased from roughly 1,000 to more than 1,200.
Martin said the availability and relatively low price of land in interior towns, compared with communities on the ocean, are big factors.
“Jackson Lab draws a lot of people into Hancock County,” Martin said Friday. “Working people cannot afford to live [on Mount Desert Island] because of high costs.”
The population of Bucksport, the third-largest municipality in Hancock County, barely increased, mustering a growth rate of only 0.3 percent. According to census figures, Bucksport had 4,908 residents in 2000 but, by 2010, saw its population increase by only 16 people, for a total of 4,924.
Dave Milan, Bucksport’s economic development director, said Wednesday morning that despite the town’s relative lack of growth, its population count reflects a change in demographics. The number of employees at the local paper mill, owned and operated by Verso, has declined from about 1,000 to around 800 over the past 10 years, he said, but the number of retirees living in Bucksport has increased.
“Bucksport is very much a blue-collar community,” Milan said. “But, like other towns in Hancock County, we’re still seeing an in-migration of older people.”
Milan said Bucksport is the only mill town in Maine that gained population since 2000, albeit by only 16 people. Only 23 percent of the mill’s employees live in Bucksport, Milan said, so the town’s population is not that closely mirrored by the number of Verso workers.
Bucksport’s school enrollment has declined, Milan said, yet its vacant housing ratio is only 16 percent, the lowest in Hancock County. Seasonal homes owned by people who have official residency status elsewhere are included in the census vacant housing figures, he said. This means that Bucksport, unlike many other coastal towns in Maine, does not see much fluctuation in its population between the winter and summer months.
Several Hancock County towns have lost population since 2000, most notably Winter Harbor, which saw its population decrease by 472 people, or nearly 48 percent. Winter Harbor was where most of the military personnel stationed at the former Navy base at Schoodic Point lived until the base closed down in 2002. The closure of the Navy base is likely the reason the neighboring larger town of Gouldsboro also lost population during the decade, shrinking from 1,941 residents to 1,737, or by about 10 percent.
Other towns that experienced population decreases include Aurora, Brooklin, Mount Desert, Osborn, Penobscot, Southwest Harbor and Stonington. Aurora and Osborn are interior Hancock County towns that, compared with neighboring communities that grew by 14 percent or more, generally are farther away from the growing cities of Bangor and Ellsworth.
The rest are all coastal towns that, according to Martin, may have seen their seasonal populations increase while their number of year-round residents has gone down. As property taxes and other expenses go up, he said, residents who struggle to make ends meet often move to less expensive communities and sell their coastal properties to wealthier people who use them as vacation homes.