This past year has been a transitional one for the Hancock County economy, in ways both good and bad.
The Bucksport paper mill closed in late 2014, leading to the layoff of more than 500 employees, the loss of tax revenue for the town and shrunken demand for the pulp products once used there.
But if the Bucksport mill closure was a shock, the ramping up of The Jackson Laboratory’s planned expansion into Ellsworth has been welcome news for city officials. Beyond the job creation and economic development the prestigious organization will bring to the county seat, they hope more biomedical companies will be tempted to follow.
Jackson Lab now employs about 1,500 people at its Bar Harbor facility, making it Hancock County’s top employer and the 19th biggest employer in Maine, according to state figures from early 2015.
The lab bought the former Lowe’s building on Kingsland Crossing in 2012, and by the end of 2016 will have started converting the old hardware store into a state-of-the-art facility for breeding genetics research mice, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Charles Hewett said in an interview.
The renovation is part of a larger plan for the lab to expand the research, conference and education capabilities of its Bar Harbor location while moving all East Coast mouse production into the new Ellsworth breeding facility, which will be known as a vivarium.
The move will spare delivery drivers the half-hour commute into and out of Bar Harbor, allowing the lab to more easily ship mice out of Maine.
“Think Amazon dot com warehouse meets mouse production,” Hewett said during a presentation last April.
While the expansion will take a decade to complete, the company hopes to have the vivarium running by 2017.
At the same time, the company plans to build a new facility in Bar Harbor that will be called the Center for Biometric Analysis.
“It’s a facility that would be like a hospital for mice,” Hewett said. “It will let us do all diagnostics and treatment for mice that we could do in a state-of-the-art hospital for people.”
Both the Ellsworth and Bar Harbor projects have benefited from outside funding.
The Ellsworth expansion is expected to cost $75 million and has received grants of $1.82 million and $1.74 million, respectively, from the Maine Education Development Administration and the Maine Technology Institute.
And in 2014, Maine voters approved the borrowing of $10 million for the construction of a facility to research cancer and aging-related diseases, funding that Jackson Lab will receive and match with its own $11 million.
So what’s keeping Jackson Lab, an organization with several other large facilities around the United States, in such a rural, out-of-the-way corner of the country?
For visitors attending conferences at the Bar Harbor campus, Hewett said, the benefits of Mount Desert Island are clear: beautiful natural scenery, good food, a national park.
Just as valid is the workforce. For finding people with experience breeding mice, Hancock County can’t be beaten, Hewett said. The nonprofit lab opened in Bar Harbor almost a century ago and has continually relied on local men and women from Ellsworth and surrounding towns to staff its facility.
If anything, the lab will have an easier time finding animal production workers by moving to the mainland, where many employees already live, Hewett said.
That’s a boon for the local workforce. Of the lab’s current employees, about a third work in research, a third in administration and a third in animal care, Hewett said. The expansion will see 230 additional positions created in Ellsworth and 135 in Bar Harbor. While about 15 of those will be for top researchers, many of the rest will be open to locals, even those without a college degree.
“We are aggressively recruiting for front line animal care workers,” Hewett said. “We hire, by design, a mix of high school and college graduates.” Many new hires take four courses in animal care, paid for by the lab.
The expansion also will create construction and support jobs, and while Jackson Lab does not pay taxes, being a nonprofit, it will make payments to the city in lieu of taxes. This year, it’s paying $86,000 to Bar Harbor for that purpose.
“It’s great news for Ellsworth,” the city’s economic development director, Micki Sumpter, said of Jackson Lab’s proposed expansion.
Not only will the arrival of Jackson Lab create “good-paying jobs with benefits,” Sumpter said, it also will show would-be job creators in the biomedical field that Ellsworth is open for business.
“Because of what Jackson Lab does and their reputation, other tech companies and scientists will be looking,” Sumpter continued. “They’ll need to be close.”
To that end, the city has approved paying up to $180,000 to purchase the Community Health and Counseling Services building on Water Street for use as an incubator for technology businesses.
While Sumpter couldn’t offer specifics about the type of businesses that might move in there, she said the goal is for new companies to get off the ground there, then find a more permanent facility in Ellsworth on which they can pay taxes.
Those businesses could complement the operations of the banks, hospitals, seafood processors and other businesses in the area, Sumpter said. Their employees would also support local retailers and restaurants.
As for Jackson Lab, Sumpter said there may be some growing pains as the company gets used to its new space and real estate.
“We’re demanding that they educate, work with the community,” she said, pointing to Hancock County Technical Center as a place where Jackson Lab could facilitate instruction.
But overall, she’s cautiously bullish about the new employer.
“We are very lucky,” Sumpter said. “There are communities that are losing paper mills. We have this industry that we should take advantage of.
“It’s going to take time. We don’t want to do this wrong.”