ELLSWORTH, Maine — The Jackson Laboratory’s long-term plan to take over the former Lowe’s building in this city took a small step forward this week.
Ellsworth’s planning board unanimously endorsed a change to the area’s zoning that would expand the types of activities that can be carried out in research labs. The zoning amendment must now go to the City Council for approval.
The change would allow Jackson Lab or any other research facility to carry out some production or manufacturing in the C-2 commercial zone where the now-vacant Lowe’s building is located. It would not allow heavy manufacturing or other activities that are appropriate for industrial zones but not necessarily for the type or retail zone around the Lowe’s building, said John Fink, chairman of the city planning board.
“This removes an obstacle that may have been in the way” of the lab moving into the building, Fink said Thursday afternoon.
Jackson Lab officials announced in March that they were interested in purchasing the 143,000-square foot building from the home improvement chain, which closed the Ellsworth store in November as part of a nationwide downsizing. That purchase is contingent on Ellsworth finalizing the zoning change and any other arrangements, however.
“The Planning Board’s thoughtful review and approval takes us one step closer to being able to take advantage of this expansion opportunity in Ellsworth,” Jackson Lab’s senior facilities director, John Fitzpatrick, said in a statement on Thursday.
Located just off of Route 3 near Walmart and Home Depot, the Lowe’s building offers the growing Bar Harbor-based lab significant expansion room as well as a location closer to the majority of its employees.
Jackson Lab is a world leader in the genetic research and production of specially bred mice used for genetic and medical research. The lab, which has 1,400 employees in Bar Harbor and at a California location, is in the midst of a considerable growth spurt and is planning a massive facility in Connecticut.
Lab officials have said they would likely take a year or two to study what to locate in the building and how to renovate the space. They have estimated that the Ellsworth location could employ 200-300 people in a decade. City officials, meanwhile, view the proposed facility as a chance to diversify the economy.
City planning board members on Wednesday also endorsed a larger package of land use and zoning changes that includes the amendments for research labs located in the commercial zone. But the board also approved the standalone change in case the larger package takes longer for the City Council to review and approve.