BAR HARBOR — When a representative of the town’s largest employer met with the Town Council Tuesday, discussion centered on perennial issues of year-round housing, land purchases by large nonprofit organizations that do not pay taxes, and voluntary payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT).
Katy Longley, The Jackson Laboratory’s chief operating officer, gave a presentation on “what the lab is up to and what we’re doing in the community.”
“Employees would prefer to be here and close to work, but they’re priced out of the market. They all want more opportunities to buy and be long-term residents, which is what we need for a vital community,” she said.
A 2017 survey by Island Housing Trust found that, in order to afford a home of in Bar Harbor, a family would need an income of $96,808.
“I’m sure that number’s gone up in two years,” Longley said. “Approximately half of our employee salaries are below the Bar Harbor median income of $52,647.”
The top researchers employed by the lab make enough money to rent or buy property in Bar Harbor. “But,” she said, “we would like to see our whole community from the hourly employee, custodial worker up to the Ph.D. scientist, feel welcomed and have an option to live on the island.”
According to Longley, the lab is exploring the possibility of building housing for employees on 35 acres of land it owns on Schooner Head Road, but the earliest that facility would be built is 2021.
Councilor Gary Friedmann noted the importance of the biomedical industry to Maine’s economy.
“To accommodate [the laboratory’s] growth and the spinoff that you get from this growth, we need to really work together on housing issues,” he said. “It would be my hope that we can find ways to bring together the players you have on your screen — the Island Housing Trust, the town, the lab, maybe others — to look at this comprehensively.”
The lab opened a new facility in Ellsworth last year, but research labs will remain in Bar Harbor, Longley said. The organization will be hiring many new positions there, but plans to keep about the same number of jobs in Bar Harbor.
“One issue that’s sensitive and I think it needs to be raised is the payment in lieu of taxes and [the lab’s] contribution these kinds of mutual efforts might be,” said Friedmann. “The town continues to see an erosion of its tax base and [the lab] has been part of that in recent years. I would personally want to see any housing that was developed on the tax rolls.
“If you were to develop millions of dollars worth of housing on [Jackson Laboratory] land and claim that it was exempt, then I think that would be putting a huge burden on the taxpayers.”
Friedmann went on to say that in his view the lab’s current PILOT of about $90,000 is small, particularly if the lab expects the town to help work on projects that will benefit lab employees.
Vice Chair Matthew Hochman echoed Friedmann’s concerns. “As a municipality, we’re in a position where 77 percent of our budget is paid by property taxes,” he said. “And you look at our taxable land and somewhere around 40 percent of our taxable land is held by nonprofits.
“That puts us as a municipality in a very difficult position,” Hochman continued. “I have a lot of respect for [the laboratory] as an organization. But if you want the town’s help in providing transportation and providing all of these other things, there does need to be some look at that payment in lieu of taxes each year.”
Longley stressed the fact that Jackson Laboratory is a nonprofit, depending on federal funding from the NIH, which can fluctuate, and private donations.
“We have to be prudent,” she said, noting that now Jackson Laboratory is making PILOT payments to Ellsworth as well as Bar Harbor.
Councilor Erin Cough said it was wonderful that 86 percent of the people who currently work at the lab come from Hancock County. “But out of roughly 1,400 employees at [the lab], that’s still over a thousand people who aren’t partaking in our year-round community.
“A few years ago, the ten-year plan was presented to the planning board, and one of the things that were presented was basically a conference center that was going to be constructed with hotel rooms, conference space, and restaurant. That takes a lot from our downtown.”
After thanking Longley for reaching out, Councilor Joe Minutolo said the lab no longer feels like an integral part of the community. “I remember growing up here and pretty much every one of your friends’ families worked at Jackson Lab. And with the rising cost of housing and for various other reasons, we’ve lost a lot of those people.”
“We owned a restaurant in town from ‘75 to ‘94 and all through the late seventies into the eighties, especially in the winter, COA and [the lab] kept us open. The restaurant was full, and I know other restaurants were full. We don’t see that as much anymore now that there’s so many amenities on campus. And from friends I have who work at the lab, I know the entities are very nice, but they do kind of take away from the feeling of being a part of the host community.”
Hochman said it might help if the lab had more events downtown.
She pointed to a joint program with the Jesup library, the Primary Source Speaker Series.
“We want our employees to be active participants in the community,” she said.