ELLSWORTH, Maine — Micki Sumpter still catches herself answering the wrong phone.
“Ellsworth Area Chamber of Commerce … umm, I mean, Hello, this is Micki,” she said Friday as she picked up the receiver in her city office.
Sumpter, the Ellsworth Chamber’s executive director for 15 years, has been hired by the city as a full-time economic development director, the first in 2½ years. She has been working part-time for the city since late 2010, when the previous director, Janet Toth, quit.
At the end of this month, Sumpter will leave her post with the Chamber and move into Ellsworth City Hall for good.
“After Janet left, we took some time to do some more planning, get a little more organized and take a step back to look at ourselves,” said Michelle Beal, Ellsworth’s city manager and Sumpter’s boss. “Micki was an easy decision. She has a passion for the city and its growth, and we’re already in the middle of a few projects together.”
Sumpter comes to the city after a long growth period with the Ellsworth Chamber. When she started in the mid-1990s, the group had about 240 members, she said. Now it has more than 700. Through the housing crisis and ensuing recession, Sumpter said, the Chamber never suffered declining numbers.
Ellsworth is the commercial and service hub for Hancock and Washington counties. Tourism traffic to Mount Desert Island and Down East crawls along U.S. Route 1 and Maine Route 3.
“Everything lands here, like dominos,” she said Tuesday.
There are a few benchmarks for measuring economic development, but according to Dwight Tilton, the city’s code enforcement officer, the best is commercial building permits.
Before 2007, city records didn’t differentiate between commercial and residential development. Since then, the data show a slump during the recession, when building permits fell from 42 in fiscal 2008 to 23 permits in 2010.
In fiscal year 2011, the most recent for which there are available data, the city issued 33 commercial building permits, the first uptick in new construction in four years. And Sumpter says things continue to look rosy in Ellsworth.
She and Beal are working with Bar Harbor’s Jackson Laboratory on its plan to open a support facility in the now-vacant Lowe’s building and with Collier’s Nursing Home, which wants to relocate and expand within city limits.
“Those two developments are key in my first year,” she said. “They both mean jobs for Ellsworth, and you’ve gotta have jobs.”
Sumpter said Ellsworth’s challenge in attracting developers is the perception that it’s too far from major transportation routes and that some parts of the city still don’t have broadband Internet access or other important utilities.
“We’re close to two airports, Bangor and Hancock County, but the perception is, ‘How far are you from Bangor? How far are you from Interstate 95?’” Sumpter said. “ A lot of developers need their products to travel, and they want to know how fast they can get here, and how expensive it will be.”
According to an October 2011 report by the Massachusetts-based CWS Consulting Group, the city faces several other development obstacles, such as a small, unskilled labor force, traffic congestion along Route 3 and competition from more robust cities such as Bangor and the metro areas farther south.
While the city can’t do much to move closer to larger markets, airports and highways, it can expand services to make its commercial properties more appealing. In 2010, the city spent more than $2 million to bring water access to the Industrial Park at Boggy Brook, a 24-unit complex off Route 1A in Ellsworth Falls.
Sumpter also will take the lead on a new marketing initiative kicked off by the city last October, pitching the city to potential developers, including the “corporate decision makers or advisers” who spend time each summer on nearby Mount Desert Island.
She hopes to woo them with the city’s low tax rate, tax incentives and dedicated “shovel-ready” development zones.
“Ellsworth is unique and special,” she said. “And we’re going to make sure it continues to be.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.