BAR HARBOR, Maine — Though many employers in Maine and nationwide are laying off workers in order to stay afloat during the economic recession, one major local employer has vacant positions that it is looking to fill.

But despite the openings, The Jackson Laboratory is subject to the same difficult economic conditions that are affecting everyone else, according to a top lab official. The lab is taking steps to guard its long-term financial viability, the official said Friday, and hopes to continue growing when the economy improves.

Chuck Hewett, Jackson Lab’s chief operating officer, said the recession has taken more than $30 million out of the lab’s endowment, reducing it from more than $80 million to just under $50 million. The lab typically uses about 5 percent of its endowment each year to help cover its annual operating budget, which is about $160 million, he said, which means that the lab has gone from having access to $4 million in endowment funds to $2.5 million. The lab’s fiscal year runs from June 1 to May 30 of each year.

The loss of this investment income means the lab has to be more cautious in its spending, Hewett said, but so far he doesn’t believe that caution will affect the lab’s current staffing levels. Jackson Lab employs more than 1,300 people in Bar Harbor, making it Hancock County’s largest employer and one of the largest in Maine.

“You can never say that absolutely,” Hewett said of avoiding layoffs, “but today we don’t anticipate that happening. We don’t see what would happen that would make [layoffs] necessary.”

The lab is looking to fill about 15 vacant positions but has roughly twice as many more that it has decided not to fill for the time being, Hewett said. In addition, the lab has postponed some capital projects such as a planned warehouse and distribution center, mouse room renovations, and an energy systems upgrade, he said.

“I’ve got a terrific team of managers,” Hewett said. “We’re just trying to stretch our money.”

The lab gets several million dollars from National Institutes of Health each year, including $50 million in 2007, but according to Hewett the lab’s NIH funding has been steadily decreasing over the past five years. The lab’s JAX Mice and Services division, which sells mice and research services to other scientists and institutions, has been enjoying double-digit increases in recent years, however, and last year took in more than $90 million in revenue.

Hewett said the lab is ahead of its previous year’s revenue for JAX Mice and Services, but still is behind what it had budgeted for the current fiscal year. The division always experiences a dip in revenue during the holiday season, when many researchers take a break from their work, but the dip last month was “much greater” than what the lab had anticipated, he said.

Nonetheless, Hewett said, the lab is “guardedly optimistic” about its ability to weather the recession. He expects that the downturn will weed out a lot of the “fluff” that has contributed to the global economy and that what grows back in the future will be more financially sound. The big question, he said, is how long it will take for the economy to crawl out of the recession and begin growing again.

“I think that’s really hard to tell,” Hewett said.

In a separate interview, Jonathan Reisman, an economist at University of Maine at Machias, said Jackson Lab might be one of the few relative “bright spots” in Maine’s economy at the moment. He said he was not familiar with Jackson Lab’s specific financial situation, but indicated in general terms that the lab may be an exam-ple of how government funding can help boost the economy.

But government spending, even millions of federal dollars, can do only so much, Reisman said.

“The private sector is suffering from a lack of confidence,” he said. “I don’t know how the government can replace that.”

Reisman said that hospitals, which rely on state reimbursements for some of their expenses, are likely to take a big hit in 2009 because the state has no money and, unlike the federal government, cannot print any. He predicted that Maine’s lobster industry also is likely to shrink significantly this year.

Cooke Aquaculture has created 80 jobs in the past few months at a salmon processing facility it re-opened in Machiasport, he said, but that expansion has been in the works for years as the company has been refining its fish-farming techniques.

There also may be modest gains in local agriculture jobs, but they aren’t expected to offset job losses elsewhere, Reisman said. Consumer spending has dropped off so sharply that many employers are taking immediate steps to make sure they stay solvent, he said.

Hinckley Yachts in Trenton has laid off roughly 75 people since last fall, Gov. John Baldacci has proposed to eliminate more than 200 state jobs, and True Textiles has indicated it plans to lay off between 75 and 90 people from its fabric plant in Guilford at the end of this month.

Reisman could not predict how long the recession and the resulting job losses might last.

“I don’t see too many bright spots,” he said. “Everyone is focused in the short term.”

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....