ELLSWORTH, Maine — Where a big box failed, mouse reproduction may succeed.
Officials with The Jackson Laboratory announced Monday that they hope to purchase the former Lowe’s home improvement store in Ellsworth, which has been vacant since the home improvement chain shut it down last fall.
The lab does not yet have specific plans for how it will use the building and needs to get zoning approval for shifting some of its operations to the Kingsland Crossing property before the sale will move forward.
In a prepared statement, Jackson Lab Chief Operating Officer Charles Hewett said that the purchase makes sense for the research institution because many of the lab’s 1,200 Bar Harbor-based employees drive past the former Lowe’s site on their way to Mount Desert Island every day.
“The closing of the Lowe’s store presented a unique opportunity for the Laboratory to grow at a site that’s closer to much of our work force in a building and on a piece of land that are already developed,” Hewett said in the statement.
Easy access, ample parking and adequate utilities are already in place at the 17-acre site, which includes a 143,000-square-foot building, he added.
Jackson Lab is known internationally for its use of mice to research human disease and medical conditions. Each year it produces millions of specially bred laboratory mice that are used in similar studies all over the world.
Hewett said in a phone interview that, if the lab can get zoning approval from Ellsworth to use the property for breeding scientific strains of mice and other related purposes, the lab likely would take a year or longer to plan exactly how it would renovate the building and what sort of operations it would establish there.
Hewett said the lab had been looking to increase its mouse production capacity at the Bar Harbor campus, where it has worked with municipal officials and with Acadia National Park to try to mitigate the impact of its expanding operations on the park and on local infrastructure.
Jackson Lab has room where it can continue to expand in Bar Harbor but when the Lowe’s property became available, lab officials realized expanding some of its operations there might be easier, he said.
Hewett said the lab’s Bar Harbor research operations are expected to stay and expand on MDI.
“It seemed like too good of an opportunity,” Hewett said of buying the former Lowe’s building. “It could be [a property] that we could grow on for quite a while.”
How many jobs the lab might establish in Ellsworth, he said, is unknown at this point, but likely will become clearer as the lab develops more specific usage plans for the property. He said that the lab theoretically could employ between 200 and 300 people in Ellsworth about 10 years from now, but added that a more concrete jobs projection or timeline would be premature.
Gov. Paul LePage issued a statement Monday afternoon about the lab’s plans.
“I was pleased to hear about the Jackson Laboratory’s plans to potentially expand into Ellsworth, and the possibility of new jobs in the area,” LePage said in the statement.
“This is an exciting time for the organization, and although further planning is needed, the potential for new jobs is an exciting announcement,” he continued. “My administration is dedicated to continuing to work with Jackson Lab as they explore new opportunities for growth across Maine.”
Michelle Beal, Ellsworth’s city manager, said Monday that having Jackson Lab expand to Ellsworth will be good for the city.
“We’re very excited,” Beal said. “This is the type of industry that we’ve been [looking toward].”
Ellsworth, Hancock County’s largest municipality, has long been the county’s largest service center and, in the past 10-15 years, has seen its retail sector expand. Lowe’s, Home Depot, T.J. Maxx, Marden’s and Walgreens are among some of the statewide or national chains that have opened stores in Ellsworth since the late 1990s. Walmart recently expanded in Ellsworth, opening its Supercenter there in 2009.
Beal said that, though the city welcomes retail development, it has been looking to diversify its economy. Jackson Lab may be a nonprofit, which would affect the amount of taxes the city gets for the Kingsland Crossing property, she said, but it is a stable employer that has added jobs during the recession.
The recent closure of Lowe’s and other local retail businesses show that the retail industry is not always that stable, especially in a lackluster economy, she said. The expansion of Jackson Lab to Ellsworth hopefully would provide more stable employment and would create other business opportunities in the city, she said.
”We’ve been talking to the lab for a couple of years,” Beal said. “There will be growth in other areas [of the local economy] because of this.”
Beal said that the city is not concerned that the lab may have an adverse impact on the city’s infrastructure or on local roads. She said Ellsworth has been actively planning for future economic and physical growth and that Jackson Lab would generate less traffic to and from Kingsland Crossing than Lowe’s did.
“It just couldn’t fit any better with our strategic planning,” Beal said.
Follow BDN Reporter Bill Trotter on Twitter at @billtrotter.