Bar Harbor-based Jackson Lab is the kind of business that other states would — and have — drooled over the prospect of landing. The lab raises genetically specific strains of mice for medical research, which it exports to labs around the world. The lab also conducts its own medical research.
Though rural Maine would welcome most any business that employs 1,200 people, Jackson Lab is the archetype for a 21st century economy. Biomedical research will remain an integral part of the academic and health care worlds for decades, if not longer. The jobs the lab creates include highly specific research positions for which doctoral degrees are required, administrative and clerical positions and lower-skilled jobs that come with the sometimes dirty business of keeping thousands of mice alive and well.
The buildings are attractive and clean and do not detract from the area’s substantial tourism, though further building expansion might have created friction with Acadia National Park and town officials. And there is no smokestack or waste pipe pollution.
So in light of this understanding of Jackson Lab, the fact that it wants to purchase the former Lowe’s store in Ellsworth underscores in dramatic fashion a challenge Maine faces in keeping businesses like Jackson Lab and attracting or helping grow others. That challenge is connecting a reliable, appropriately educated work force to the workplace.
The lab’s Chief Operating Officer explained the planned purchase citing the “unique opportunity for the laboratory to grow at a site that’s closer to much of our work force.” So many lab employees commute to Mount Desert Island from coastal Hancock County towns and beyond that van pools have formed to help make the math work for employees weighing gas prices and paychecks.
A very 20th century business, Bath Iron Works, also draws workers from a large geographic area, although it is based closer to Maine’s population epicenter.
That Jackson Lab is making this move now may not be coincidental. The company’s planned expansion was courted by Florida with a sizable tax incentive. The incentive plan was given a chilly reception by local voters and the state’s governor, though, causing the deal to die on the vine. The lab also has expanded in Connecticut.
Maine could not offer the scale of tax breaks the lab sought, nor should it have. And expanding to Ellsworth may not fill the needs the organization had that drove it to consider such moves. But bringing the jobs closer to the work force underscores the state’s need to think geographically in its economic development strategy.
The tie between a facility like Jackson Lab and institutions of higher learning which themselves have research elements could be replicated elsewhere. Communities in Maine that host universities or colleges that do not conduct research still have the potential to produce job-ready graduates or spin-off work that supplements economic development. These opportunities should be explored.
Ellsworth municipal leaders understand and welcome the paychecks that will be spent in the city, even though Jackson Lab as a nonprofit does not pay property tax. In short, the move to Ellsworth is smart for the lab and provides a boost for the local economy. State economic development officials should do more than cheer this development; they should sit down privately with lab management and understand just what it needs to thrive, and consider how that dynamic can be replicated elsewhere.