The Jackson Laboratory has been expanding beyond its Bar Harbor headquarters at an unprecedented rate over the past few years, building a mouse-breeding facility in Ellsworth, partnering with the University of Connecticut in a new genomic research facility and expanding its presence into China.
That growth has had it challenges. The lab sought to expand to Florida a decade ago before running into obstacles and later deciding on Connecticut, it recently filed suit over construction delays in Ellsworth, and it is still trying to reach a settlement with a Chinese university that it says violated a contract by breeding and selling the lab’s mice.
But the biggest challenge facing the lab, which is the world’s largest breeder of mice for medical research and one of eastern Maine’s largest employers, is the same challenge it has faced for decades: affordable housing for its workforce.
“The biggest issue I’ve seen is the housing crisis,” said Catherine “Katy” Longley, who became the lab’s chief operating officer last summer when Charles Hewett retired. “I go to every new employee coffee [gathering] in Bar Harbor, and the No. 1 issue the employees say is, ‘I can’t find a place to live.’ So they can’t find a year-round rental or they find the property prices [prohibitive].”
Affordable housing is a perennial issue on Mount Desert Island, where development is constrained by the shoreline, by Acadia National Park, and by real estate and rental prices that — due to the demand during the island’s congested summer tourist season — are beyond the reach of what many local working residents can afford. Other local employers such as hotel firms and Acadia National Park also struggle with finding housing for their workers, many of whom are seasonal.
Speaking Monday morning in her office at the lab’s Bar Harbor campus, Longley said that, due to the lab’s growth over the past decade, it now has more than 2,000 employees, 1,400 of whom are based in Bar Harbor. Roughly 350 work in Farmington, Connecticut, 370 at its mouse production facility in Sacramento, California, and 40 more at its new mouse production facility, or vivarium, in Ellsworth. Nearly 70 more work remotely.
Jackson Lab, which uses mice to study human disease and illness and breeds specialty strains of mice used in biomedical research around the globe, had roughly 700 total employees in the late 1990s.
Most of the lab’s current employees are not directly involved in biomedical research but instead work clerical jobs, care for the lab’s research mice or maintain its facilities. As additional phases of work are completed over the coming decade in Ellsworth inside the former Lowe’s home improvement store, that mouse production site is expected to have more than 300 employees, most of whom are expected to be new hires, lab officials have said.
Longley said that by moving most of its Maine mouse production capacity to Ellsworth from Bar Harbor, Jackson Lab will shorten the commute for many of its employees who do not live on Mount Desert Island, including those who travel daily from southern Penobscot or western Washington counties. And by moving to a site that is a half-hour closer to those places, the lab can expand the area from which it draws employees to include Belfast, communities beyond Bangor, or even Machias, she said.
“This is why Ellsworth is an interesting location for us,” Longley said, adding that it is one of the fastest growing cities in Maine. She said the lab also has been in contact with Bar Harbor town officials and other local employers to try to find collaborative ways to address the workforce housing issue.
Longley said the lab is committed to keeping its headquarters and primary workforce in Hancock County. She said that under Hewett’s leadership the lab raised its minimum wage in 2016 to $15 per hour, which was twice the state-mandated minimum of $7.50 an hour at the time, in an effort to attract and keep more employees. The lab also spends “close to $1 million” a year, Longley said, on employee education programs such as its Master’s of Business Administration partnership with Husson University through which Husson offers classes on Mount Desert Island.
“I think we have to continually be attracting people not only to Maine but to Bar Harbor and Ellsworth,” Longley said. “This will be a year where I really focus on [developing] a housing strategy for the lab.”