ELLSWORTH, Maine — After years of anticipation, Jackson Laboratory is putting its plans for expanding to Ellsworth into motion.
On Thursday evening, lab officials told a small group of Ellsworth officials and residents that they expect to start work in June on converting the former Lowe’s building into a mouse vivarium, where they will breed research mice that they sell to biomedical scientists around the world.
Lab officials told about 40 people at the meeting that they expect the renovation of the 140,000-square-foot building to take 18 months and to have their first research mouse in the facility by Jan. 1, 2018.
“We’re going to be in there on Dec. 31, 2017,” John Fitzgerald, the lab’s senior director of facilities services, said. “That’s in 633 days [from now].”
Not only will there be mice at the facility, but lab officials expect to have more than 100 employees working there when operations start, Fitzgerald said. Eventually, as Jackson Lab expands its operations at the Kingsland Crossing facility, it expects to have 230 employees working there, three-quarters of whom are expected to be new hires, with the rest being people whose jobs have been transferred to Ellsworth from Bar Harbor.
Fitzgerald said the lab expects to generate about $70 million in mouse sales each year with the Ellsworth vivarium, and that it anticipates spending about $125 million just to convert the former home improvement supply store into a pristine biomedical facility.
The building has been empty, save for some shipping supplies and other items Jackson Lab has stored there, since Lowe’s closed up shop in the city in November 2011.
Jackson Lab bought the building for $3.2 million in October 2012.
Officials in Ellsworth, a regional service center that over the years has felt both the economic highs and lows of fluctuations in the retail sector, have long been eager to diversify the city’s tax base. Jackson Lab is a nonprofit and so does not pay property taxes, but city officials have said that the lab will more than make up for it by creating hundreds of local, well-paying jobs and injecting millions of dollars each year into the city’s economy through employee wages and by purchasing outside services from local businesses.
David Cole, Ellsworth’s city manager, said city officials have been working eagerly with the lab about the move. Issues such as water service, fire protection and security all have been thoroughly discussed to help make the expansion to the Hancock County seat a smooth one for both the lab and the city, he said.
“This is a partnership and a team effort,” Cole said. “We’ll be doing what we can to help make it thrive.”
Fitzgerald said Thursday that the lab considered one or more vacant “big box” retail spaces in Bangor for expanding its mouse production division, but ultimately decided Ellsworth was a better fit. It is closer to Bar Harbor and easier to get to for senior managers who are based on the island, he said, and so is more likely to mirror the high standards Jackson Lab has on its primary campus.
“Fifty miles might as well be 5,000 miles in terms of maintaining synergy and [institutional] culture,” Fitzgerald said, referring to the distance from Bar Harbor to Bangor.
But another big reason is that working in Ellsworth will be easier for most of the lab’s employees, 1,200 of whom work in Bar Harbor.
“Sixty-five percent of our employees drive by this facility everyday,” Fitzgerald said, adding that the lab provides 180 employees with commuter bus runs to the island each day from Franklin and Bangor. Driving to Ellsworth for work, rather than to Bar Harbor, will reduce the daily commutes for employees who live off island by an hour.
“We can’t underscore how important it is for our employees to get an hour back in their lives [each day],” Fitzgerald said.
The Ellsworth site also provides the lab with more room to grow than their Bar Harbor campus, most of which abuts Acadia National Park, he added.
Fitzgerald said that at the Ellsworth site, the lab plans to expand the building into the footprint of the former outdoor garden center and to use that space for the facility’s utility plant and data center.
Otherwise, he added, the lab does not plan to expand the size of the existing building. He said the ceiling inside the former Lowe’s is high enough that the lab plans to construct a second floor inside the front facade of the building, which it will use for offices and climate-control equipment.
An employee fitness center and a food service and dining area will be added as part of the interior renovations, he said, and night sky-friendly lighting is planned to be installed outside.
Fitzgerald said the lab plans to extensively renovate the facade so it will not look like a former Lowe’s, and to plant greenery along the front of the building — which prompted several people in the audience to applaud.