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July 23, 2018
Focus: Real estate, construction and design

Ellsworth pursues new housing to meet demand fueled by Jackson Lab's expansion

Photo / Fred Field
Photo / Fred Field
Ellsworth City Manager David Cole, with the city's director of economic development, Micki Sumpter, is working to create more housing for all income groups.

Developers are working hard to keep up with booming demand for residential construction in Ellsworth.

The Jackson Laboratory's new satellite facility, with 370 employees anticipated at full capacity, is expected to increase demand further in a tight residential market.

"We have a real need for the full range of accommodations here," says City Manager David Cole. "We're always hearing, 'You can't find an apartment in Ellsworth.' The inventory is very tight."

Mike Wight, president of Broughman Builders in Ellsworth, witnessed firsthand the urgency after a tenant vacated one of his rental units.

"We put it in the paper and got six calls in one day," Wight says.

Another four units on Spencer Street created immediate interest. "When I put that up for rent, we got 28 calls in 24 hours," he says.

Regional gateway

Photo / Fred Field
Photo / Fred Field
Mike Wight is president of Broughman Builders.

Ellsworth has seen considerable growth, says Cole.

Ellsworth's population grew by 19.9% between 2000 and 2010, from 6,456 to 7,741, at a time when the state population grew by a comparatively modest 4.2%, according to U.S. Census numbers.

Cole says it was about location. "Ellsworth is historically a regional center," says Cole. "This is where people come to buy goods and find services. The city of Ellsworth's per-capita retail sales are higher than any city in the state, higher than Freeport and Kittery. That surprises people."

It is a central area between Acadia National Park and Bangor.

"Our location has historically been Ellsworth's strength," Cole continues. "It's a gateway to Acadia and the coast, it's a service hub, and it's connected to the Bangor metro area."

And now, with Bar Harbor-based Jackson Lab expanding into Ellsworth, there is even more demand for housing.

"I've been here for three years, and it became clear to me early on that housing needed to be a top priority, not only for basic community needs but for economic development," says Cole. "You can't have jobs and economic growth without people, and it's hard to draw people without housing."

Ellsworth continues to wrestle with retail vacancies, including a former Rite Aid, various mall spaces and a 160,000-acre parcel that's part of a Wal-Mart and Home Depot development.

Yet the city has found ways to regenerate — in part, by fostering tech companies.

In 2016, the Ellsworth Economic Development Corp. redeveloped an existing site into the Union River Center for Innovation, a business incubator and co-working space. Today, it has four tech businesses, including Katadyn Products Inc., a Swiss maker of the portable UV water purifier SteriPEN; Gel Hydration Technologies, a maker of hydration systems for dogs; GenoTyping Center of America, a genetic testing service; and Monoclonals, which makes antibodies used in diagnosing viral diseases.

The JAX factor

Another big step will be the August opening of the first phase of Jackson Lab's $200 million mouse-breeding facility. The so-called Kingsland Crossing building is housed in a former Lowe's Home Improvement store. It will serve as a research and mouse-production lab, from which it can raise and sell research mice to researchers around the world.

The site will initially have 80 to 90 employees and as many as 370 at capacity. It's expected that some of those prospective employees already live in the area, says facility director John Fitzpatrick.

"But I know we'll attract others," he says. "One thing that will attract or repel them is the availability and price of housing."

Residential projects already underway in Ellsworth will provide options for a range of employees, from line staff to administrators, Fitzpatrick says.

"I've spent a fair amount to time talking with developers who are working in Ellsworth, trying to give them the lay of the land for [employee] demographics. Hopefully we've helped to convince a few of them to move forward on projects that they may have been or are currently considering."

He notes that the city has available land for single-family homes.

"A person can still afford to buy a half-acre downtown or two acres in the suburbs or 20 acres in the country and build a new house," he says.

Construction boom

In the past two years, the city has worked with developers, banks and Realtors to discuss housing needs and opportunities, says Cole. The city's technical review team seeks to ensure that project applications and execution go smoothly, he says. (Wight and others credit city officials and departments for their coordinated efforts.) Housing is needed across the board, from workforce housing to higher-end accommodations, rentals to single-family homes, Cole says.

"In the last two years, we've got about 140 new rental units in the pipeline that have been permitted or are being built or have been built," says Cole. "And that doesn't include the Trenton side where, two miles from where the new Jackson Lab facility is going in, they've got at least 10 units boxed up and the foundations for more coming along. So if you look at all of that, there are a lot of projects in motion. In my estimation, it's just dealing with pent-up demand."

What's underway

Residential projects underway or recently completed include:

  • Jonathan Bates of Stone Park Properties LLC in Ellsworth received a certificate of occupancy for a nine-unit property on the Bangor Road and has proposed a 24-unit site on Washington Street.
  • Broughman Builders received a certificate of occupancy for a six-unit site on Townhouse Way and began construction on eight units on Beckwith Court.
  • Jesse Derr of J.D.Builders LLC received a certificate of occupancy on two six-unit sites and is constructing two more six-unit properties.
  • Chad Francis, owner of Atlantic Landscape Construction Inc., received approval to build 10 townhouse units on the old Newland Nursery site on the Bangor Road.
  • Ashley Andrews received a certificate of occupancy for two nine-unit buildings.
  • Buzzell Properties LLC received certificates of occupancy on 10 units.

Cole says the city approves construction of 30 to 35 single-family homes per year, too.

"We're very, very — underline that— low," says Economic Development Coordinator Micki Sumpter. "But we're asking developers to look at that and start building. And they are looking."

Workforce housing

Ellsworth's largest residential project is a $9 million workforce housing development. Developers Collaborative of Portland plans to build 50 units in seven townhouses on 4.7 acres off High Street, near Route 1 and within walking distance of the downtown. Compact development is part of Developers Collaborative's "smart growth" philosophy, using existing public infrastructure, reducing traffic and sprawl, and preserving rural areas, says founder Kevin Bunker.

Bunker says Jackson Lab's expansion into Ellsworth, combined with the tight residential market, is part of what attracted him to the area.

As a tax credit housing project, Bunker says, rents will be restricted to workers making between 50% and 60% of the area median income, or $23,000 to $42,000, depending on family size.

"We're [already] getting phone calls every day from interested parties," Bunker says.

The need for workforce housing is urgent, says Cole.

"Everyone is looking for workers, so they need housing," he adds.

Bunker mentions he's also in discussions with city and state officials and employers to look into development of seasonal workforce housing for hospitality and agricultural workers.

"We've been working the past several months to find a way to provide seasonal housing for workers in a market where it's hard enough to find year-round rentals," he says. He wouldn't reveal details, but mentioned his draft solution is creatively financed to spread risk.

It's not just new housing

Ellsworth is also seeing new interest in old buildings, including conversions of upper stories of retail spaces downtown for apartments.

"Our numbers don't capture everything — people converting upstairs space in the downtown, or changing homes into apartments or duplexes," says Cole. "So it's happening, one or two at a time, and that adds up."

Developer Bates says townhouses and even rentals are often attractive options to longtime homeowners looking to downsize. He cites one couple, now tenants at one of his townhouses, as an example.

"They're affluent, they have great jobs, great incomes," he says. "They own their home for 15, 20 years, no mortgage. But the woman says, 'John, we had to drill another well. Then we did the siding, then the windows. This year, we've got to do the roof.' She's over it."

Although there are plenty of older, existing rentals in Ellsworth, it isn't easy to find quality units.

"They're dated," Wight says. "I hear a lot from tenants that they're moving out from somewhere else because it's old or the landlord isn't doing a good job."

Whether buying or renting, people are looking for places to live.

"As Jackson Lab comes online and continues to grow," Cole says. "It's just going to make the need that much more critical."

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