ELLSWORTH, Maine — The Jackson Laboratory is opening a $200 million research-mouse breeding center in Ellsworth, and that is happy news to City Manager David Cole.
But Cole says he doesn’t have to wait until 2026, the year the lab is expected to employ as many as 350 people, to be pleased about the shape the city is in.
At least 99 housing units are under review by city officials or under construction in Ellsworth, a city of about 7,750 residents that is the county seat and service hub of Hancock County. The number of building permits issued by the city is well above average this year.
And that’s before Phase I of the lab goes operational next month.
“The impact of the employment at Jackson Lab isn’t baked into the cake yet,” Cole said. “The thing is, in Ellsworth right now, there is a pent-up demand for housing. If you talk to developers around here, they say that they are going as fast as they can as far as building new properties is concerned.”
The Jackson Laboratory startup in Ellsworth will occur in phases, with 15 to 20 workers at the plant now, 80 to 90 workers by spring 2019, and about 250 in 2023, according to laboratory officials.
Yet, according to statistics compiled by the Ellsworth Planning Department, the city is attracting people before the hiring gets going. The number of building permits the city has has issued has climbed from a low of 149 in 2012 to 190 in the first six months of 2018.
The graph shows relatively consistent performance improvement from 2012 to present. There were 159 in 2013, 180 and 178 in 2014-15, but a big spike of 250 permits issued in 2016 — the year The Jackson Lab broke ground on the mouse facility.
The numbers, Cole admits, aren’t as heady as the 311 permits issued at the height of Ellsworth’s housing boom in 2004 — they steadily fell from there to the low of 2012 — but Cole sees the city as rebounding from the recession of 10 years ago.
Some Hancock County developers say Ellsworth’s growth has been steady but not spectacular. Several condominium complexes are being built, but they aren’t necessarily going up just because of the lab.
“We’ve had good rentals for 20 years,” Jesse Derr of JD Construction Co. Inc. of Ellsworth said. “I don’t see where we’re getting any more business just because of the lab. There are a few more buildings going up, but that’s just because of the demand that’s still there.”
Derr is among several developers with projects underway. He is building the second of two six-unit buildings in the city. He built the first last summer, he said.
Among the 99 housing units in development or under construction are eight townhouses under construction on Beckwith Hill, and 50 more apartments are going up near Washington and Foster streets. A nine-unit development just opened on Bangor Road, the street where the city just approved for construction another eight apartments, Cole said.
And the city planning board is reviewing a 24-unit development slated for Washington Street near the 50 under construction, officials said.
Carpenter James Klausky, 26, said Ellsworth is keeping him at work. He formed a new company, PB and J Carpentry of Ellsworth, in October to better take advantage of the subcontracting work he is getting. He is also helping build Derr’s six-unit development off Surry Road.
“I am busy all the way into winter,” Klausky of Ellsworth said. “I probably have about eight months of work lined up.”
The start of construction on the lab in 2016 made developers less leery of investing in Ellsworth. It likely has a great deal to do with the 250 permits issued that year, according to Micki Sumpter, the city’s economic development director.
“You can’t say that people aren’t seeing that facility coming into the area,” Sumpter said.
Unlike many towns in Maine, Ellsworth is growing. According to U.S. Census figures compiled by the city, Ellsworth’s population has grown 21.7 percent from 2000 to 2015.
City officials are also hopeful that other economic development initiatives will produce more jobs.
Outgoing Jackson Lab Chief Operating Officer Chuck Hewett and city officials formed the Ellsworth Business Development Corp. in 2013 to foster economic opportunities in the area, and that in turn spawned the Union River Center for Innovation, a business incubator.
The city also has started to work to attract small- to medium-sized companies employing maybe a dozen or so workers who can work with the Jackson Lab. The smaller corporations are the most likely to come to Ellsworth, Cole said.
“Don’t get me wrong, we would love to see another large company like Jackson come in,” Cole said, “but we want to be realistic.”
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