ELLSWORTH, Maine — Local officials are on a mission to make the city a friendlier place to live for senior citizens already residing in town and also a possible destination for seniors living elsewhere.
From a new senior center to a housing complex for older residents that received final approval last week from the city’s planning board, Ellsworth is making significant changes with seniors in mind.
But over the longer term, city officials also hope to draw interest from developers of senior communities targeting the growing demographic of seniors and baby boomers who are living more active lives post-retirement.
“I think Ellsworth would be a great place for seniors to spend the summertime, [especially] for the snowbirds, those seniors who go to Florida in winter and then in summer come back here,” said City Manager Michelle Beal.
For Beal and other city officials, senior citizens represent an attractive demographic for a variety of reasons. Seniors tend to travel less and, when in town, spend more of their money in local shops and restaurants. Additionally, retirees and other older residents use fewer city services — especially schools — but often get involved in local activities.
City officials say they are focused on improving the “quality of place” of Ellsworth for all residents, not just those in their golden years.
“It is just one aspect of many issues we are working on in the city,” said Gary Fortier, chairman of the City Council.
But seniors stand to benefit from a number of projects under way or in the planning stages for one corner of the city.
The planning board recently approved design plans for a 26-unit affordable housing complex catering to older residents. City officials created an affordable housing tax increment financing district, or TIF district, for the site that will allow the developer — a subsidiary of the Penquis community service agency — to reuse a portion of the tax revenue for the complex to subsidize rents for the residents.
“It is a great project,” said Fortier, who worked with Penquis on the project. “It is certainly needed in this area.”
Just across the road from the proposed site of the Leonard Lake Senior Housing complex, crews have been demolishing the former Knowlton School t o make room for a new, multiuse park that officials believe will be used by residents of all ages.
Across State Street from the park, the former Moore School will be converted into a full-fledged senior center. Fortier said he hopes the hard-core renovation work on the school — which will continue to host YMCA programs, including a day care — can begin in two years, but that depends on the project costs and fundraising.
The city also is focusing on improving sidewalks and crosswalks throughout town in an effort to make Ellsworth a more “walkable city” for all residents, Beal said.
Recent U.S. Census data indicate that Maine is once again the oldest state in the nation and that the percentage of residents age 65 or older grew by 1.5 percent to 15.9 percent between 2000 and 2010.
Ellsworth was the fastest-growing city in the state during that period, but senior citizens were not responsible for that growth. While Hancock County’s percentage of residents age 65 or older grew by 2.3 percent during the decade, Ellsworth’s population of senior citizens shrank by roughly 1 percent.
Beal said she sees opportunities to create in Ellsworth the type of development found elsewhere in which seniors live independently in small homes or condominiums within a planned retirement community. The challenge, she said, is finding sufficient land for such a sizable project that is still close enough to downtown Ellsworth to be served by sewer and water.
But Beal said she believes such a development would be attractive to snowbirds like her parents who winter in Florida thanks to Ellsworth’s status as a service center community and location on the coast near Acadia National Park and other popular destinations.
“What we don’t have, we have close by,” she said.