The Jackson Laboratory, Hancock County’s largest employer, is working to set up a new child care program in Bar Harbor for up to 56 children as part of its efforts to make it easier and more affordable for employees to live and work on Mount Desert Island.
Jackson Lab is working with the YMCAs in Bar Harbor and Ellsworth to offer the service at the MDI YMCA in Bar Harbor. The lab would fund construction of a one-story addition to the Bar Harbor building, and the Ellsworth-based Downeast Family Y — which already runs a daycare program for the lab in Ellsworth — would run the program in the new space.
The lab currently employees about 90 people in Ellsworth, where it continues to develop a 200,000 square-foot mouse reproduction facility.
Ron Wrobel, president of the MDI Y’s board of trustees, told the Bar Harbor Town Council that the local Y does not currently offer an infant child care program but it does have after-school programs for older children. He said that having the Ellsworth Y run the program at the Bar Harbor site makes sense.
“They have the experience to do this without the financial risk we feel like we would be taking,” Wrobel said.
Officials at Jackson Lab, which employs approximately 1,700 people in Maine, have said that the scarcity of affordable housing and child care on MDI have been major challenges for the organization in recruiting and retaining workers. Escalating real estate costs on MDI, which is seasonally popular with tourists and summer residents from out of state, have put housing on the island out of the reach of many Mainers, especially young families.
To address its employee housing needs, the lab also plans to build apartments near its campus on Route 3 in Bar Harbor, south of downtown. Lab officials said Tuesday that they have revised their plans and now hope to build two, 12-unit apartment buildings on a 36-acre parcel the lab owns on the west side of Route 3, directly opposite the northern end of Schooner Head Road. Lab officials were expecting to present the apartment plans to the town’s planning board on Wednesday.
The apartment complex would be in keeping with the lab’s not-for-profit mission, so it would be exempt from local property taxes, but the lab would factor the development into its annual voluntary monetary contribution to the town, Catherine Longley, the lab’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, told the council Tuesday. The lab will also pay the apartments’ water and sewer system user fees.
John Fitzpatrick, the lab’s senior director of facilities, told the council that the addition to the existing Y building on Park Street would allow for up to 56 children in the new child care program. Of those 56 slots, Jackson Lab employees would be given priority for up to 40 of them, with the remainder available to the public for a fee.
Currently, some lab employees who live and work on MDI drive to Ellsworth every morning to drop their child off at the lab’s daycare site on Beechland Road, drive back to Bar Harbor to work, drive back to Ellsworth after work to pick up their child, and then drive back home to MDI, Fitzpatrick said. Other lab employees commute daily to Bar Harbor from the Bangor area and from western Washington County.
“We’ve got almost 100 positions we’re recruiting for in Bar Harbor right now,” Fitzpatrick told the council.
He said the lab has not yet worked out a design with Y officials for the expansion in Bar Harbor.
The council voted in favor of the proposal, though the project will have to be approved by the planning board when lab and Y officials have finalized their building plans. The council’s approval of the project is needed because the town leases the property to the MDI YMCA, and the Y will need the town’s permission to sub-let the new addition to Jackson Lab, which then will contract with the Downeast Family YMCA to run the child care program.
The addition is expected to be completed, and the child care program in operation, by late summer 2022, lab officials said.
Individual cost estimates for the YMCA addition and employee apartments were unavailable Wednesday, but lab officials told the council that the combined cost of both is projected to be around $13 million.