ELLSWORTH — The Jackson Laboratory’s expansion into the former Lowe’s building moved one step closer to reality Tuesday, as lab officials and politicians officially broke ground on what will be a massive mouse production facility within two years.
“It’s a red-letter day for Ellsworth,” said City Council Chairman Bob Crosthwaite. He said it is a day city officials have waited for and looked forward to since they first learned the lab was looking to expand into the former home improvement big-box store.
The lab bought the shuttered store in 2012, and is now in the midst of a planning review by city officials for its new facility. The Ellsworth location will become the lab’s center of mouse production on the East Coast, as operations currently housed in Bar Harbor will shift to Ellsworth.
That will free up space on the lab’s Bar Harbor campus for more education and research endeavors.
“What this Ellsworth facility means to us is huge,” said Edison Liu, the lab’s president and CEO.
Chuck Hewett, the lab’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, said the Ellsworth facility will have the healthiest mice and will be the most efficient and worker-friendly facility the lab has.
He highlighted the need for more mice, as the lab expects to sell more than 3 million of them this year. The most recent mouse production facility built prior to this in Sacramento, Calif., is already at capacity sooner than expected. The lab is pushing to have the Ellsworth facility up and running by Jan. 1, 2018.
In 2015, the lab sold mice to more than 23,500 research labs around the world in more than 50 different companies.
Hewett credited John Fitzpatrick, the lab’s senior director of facilities services, with first taking note of the former Lowe’s building and seeing the potential for the lab to use it.
“He had the right idea for that, and here we are,” Hewett said.
U.S. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) was the first of several political leaders to speak. She shared a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said that if one were to build a better mousetrap, the world would beat a path to your door.
“Well, at Jackson Lab, they took that one step further – they didn’t build a better mousetrap, they built a better mouse,” said Collins. She later added, “So, in fact, the world has beaten a path to the door of Jackson Lab to marvel at your work and to express our gratitude.”
Collins was followed by U.S. Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who said his daughter, Molly, is working as an intern for Jackson Lab this summer.
“This is a great day for Ellsworth, for Hancock County, but it’s also a great day for the state of Maine,” King said. “It creates opportunities for people in Maine to work and stay here.”
The Ellsworth facility is expected to employ 230 workers in a mix of operations and management positions. Throughout Tuesday afternoon’s event, lab officials underscored what they said is their strong commitment to the state of Maine.
Liu said the lab is “deeply anchored in the state” and that its commitment to Maine is “steadfast.” Hewett echoed that position in his remarks.
“I’m committed to see JAX stay in Maine and thrive in Maine,” he said.
Hewett said there is no other area in the world with such a concentration of knowledge and experience when it comes to raising mice for research purposes. He said when the mouse production facility in Ellsworth is complete, it will be the most advanced facility of its kind in the world.
Hewett also touted the financial impact of the facility. He said the first phase has a $75 million price tag, of which the lab will be paying about $71 million, while a second phase will cost $65 million. He said the lab will need help from state and federal government and private sources in raising the money to make the second phase a reality.
Collins, a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, noted to applause that there was increased funding for organizations such as the lab in both this and last year’s federal budget.
John Butera, senior economic adviser to Gov. Paul LePage, said the lab always will have an ally in the governor as long as he is on office.
“We’ll continue to do whatever we can to support that growth,” he said.
Butera said lobsters and lighthouses are seen as icons of Maine, but he believes the roster can be expanded, too.
“You can add Jackson Lab to that list,” he said.
The event closed with politicians and lab officials grabbing shovels and taking part in a groundbreaking ceremony. A small section of the concrete floor in the cavernous building had been removed and a neat pile of dirt was in place for participants to dig into.