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January 11, 2024

Ellsworth looks for input on plan to build business, development — and balance

aerial of brick buildings church roads COURTESY / KYLE LAMONT, GOOD TO GO STUDIO Ellsworth is looking to maintain a balance as a year-round community and an important service center through future business growth prospects.

The city of Ellsworth has maintained its identity through the decades as a year-round community and an important service center for Hancock County — without becoming overly dependent on the tourism economy that fuels other parts of the region.

Maintaining that balance will be important to Ellsworth’s future growth prospects, a new plan for attracting business says.

The city’s economic development department and the Ellsworth Business Development Corp. is now seeking input from businesses and residents on the draft plan. To take a look, click here.

Prepared by ConsultEcon Inc. and Harpswell Strategies LLC, the plan has two central purposes:

  • Provide the city with a new economic development vision statement and recommendations for targeted business sectors
  • Provide concrete implementation steps that will help create conditions for economic growth and prosperity.

A crossroads

According to a market analysis, Ellsworth is the county’s primary employment center and economic engine and an important contributor to the region’s visitor-driven businesses. In recent years, the regional economy has seen strong growth in the professional and business services, leisure and hospitality, and construction.

The city has seen steady residential and commercial development that reflects a growth in population of 21.7% from 2000 to 2015 — five times the state's growth rate. Ellsworth's population is now 8,500 and projected to grow 3.3% from 2022 to 2027.

The local economy is dominated by health care and retail jobs. Ellsworth has the highest per capita retail spending of any service center community in Maine. And although there are seasonal variations in sales, most businesses there operate year-round. 

The city is also a crossroads for some of the state’s biggest tourist attractions, on the Route 1, Route 1A and Route 3 corridors near the convergence of Interstate 95 and Route 1A. For many travelers, Ellsworth is en route to Acadia National Park, Bangor, the Downeast and midcoast regions and the Blue Hill, Deer Isle and Schoodic peninsulas. The city is also near assets like airports, higher education, health care systems and recreational opportunities. 

Prospects for growth

There are prospects for growth in areas like specialty food and beverage manufacturing and sales; commercial and housing development; health care services, medical manufacturing and life sciences; and the visitor economy and hospitality.

But employers are challenged by three shortages that make employee recruitment and retention difficult: a lack of public transportation, child care and, especially, housing. Other challenges include an aging population and a greater share of low-income households than the statewide ratio, despite a well-educated population base.

The supply of retail, office and industrial space and buildable sites is limited and little space is available in the downtown. The hotel market is performing well, but the labor shortage is particularly acute in that sector, making it difficult to find workers to build or operate new lodgings.

Economic development vision

The proposed vision is designed to present an “aspirational but realistic approach” for the city’s future business attraction activities, according to the draft, which outlines action steps that include:

  • Create a new economic development website and marketing materials with “a more business-friendly face”
  • Create a permanent downtown park and gathering space 
  • Develop a downtown co-working space and makerspace designed to appeal to creative entrepreneurs, makers, remote workers and other professionals 
  • Establish a food manufacturing hub that would leverage locally grown produce and other agricultural products; a  kitchen incubator or shared commercial kitchen would be one step 
  • Create an inventory of available commercial spaces and storefronts to make easier for those considering making investments in the city
  • Create a wayfinding and gateway signage program to make it easier for visitors to find lesser-known neighborhoods, stores and activities
  • Find small-scale housing developers 
  • Develop a master plan for the High Street corridor, the primary gateway to Acadia but often congested, unsafe for pedestrians and in need of attractive streetscaping.
  • Review economic development incentive policies, including an update to the city’s tax increment financing districts
  • Explore potential for regional business park and medical office space of a scale sufficient to attract interest from large-scale investors
  • Pursue opportunities for waterfront redevelopment 
  • Recruit a hotel to the downtown
  • Leverage recreational trail opportunities
  • Leverage the expertise of older professionals for mentoring
  • Establish scholarships for entrepreneurial development
  • Find ways to meet local childcare needs, such as cooperative day cares supported by public funding.

Young professionals

The plan further identifies a need to market Ellsworth to young creatives and professionals. 

“For Ellsworth to grow its targeted business sectors, it will need to attract young, skilled talent to the area,” the draft says. 

The city already has opportunities for professionals from larger employers such as the Jackson Laboratory and Northern Light Health. 

But “Ellsworth should focus on attracting more creative entrepreneurs, makers and artisans who are not necessarily tied to specific locations,” the plan reads. The presence of a co-worker and maker space is considered an essential component of that effort. 

Strong emphasis on housing

There’s a strong emphasis on housing development.

“Ellsworth’s efforts to build and sustain its local economy must emphasize the need for different housing models for workers, families and seniors,” the draft says. 

“As a result of its development trends and patterns, available workforce housing in Ellsworth is now mostly limited to high-priced single-family homes and modestly priced (and typically small) rental units,” the draft says.

In the current market, new single-family detached units on a typical suburban lot of a quarter acre or larger would have a price tag of at least $500,000, “which is not an attainable price for most working people and families in Ellsworth,” the draft says.

It continues, “The city will need to work proactively to create the proper environment to foster the development of new neighborhoods and alternative housing types, such as small-lot single-family attached townhomes, live-work units, cottage courts, duplexes, small multi-family units (3-12 units) and accessory dwelling units.”

Ellsworth was recently awarded funds to conduct a housing needs assessment and develop strategies for increasing housing opportunities and the plan is to develop detailed recommendations.

However, “a critical component of the housing shortage in Downeast Maine is the limited pool of building contractors and skilled tradespeople who can build new homes,” the draft continues. 

The draft identifies the use of modular and/or manufactured housing as a potential solution and exploring a project with the University of Maine’s Advanced Structures & Composites Center, which has developed a prototype for a 3D printed house made of renewable materials — which “would be an excellent fit for a future business park.”

High-value jobs

Development of a life sciences and medical manufacturing “ecosystem” is identified as a potential way to diversify Ellsworth’s existing health care cluster and add higher-value companies and jobs. 

However, given the specific requirements of companies in those industries, “Ellsworth must invest a great deal of time and money over many years to develop an ecosystem that will be able to attract and sustain these business types,” the draft says. 

That means establishing a dialogue between the city and existing groups that are promoting the industries regionally and statewide. They include Maine & Co. and Eastern Maine Development Corp., as well as the University of Maine, Jackson Laboratory, MDI Biological Laboratory and other major academic and research institutions. 

“This action step comes with risk, as the probability for short-term success is likely quite low,” the draft says. “As such, the city should take an incremental approach to this effort and should limit its investment to staff and volunteer time until and unless there may be specific opportunities to recruit a major business or facility.”

The plan identifies timeframes for action implementations of up to five years, and funding sources that include city, state and federal money as well as private-sector investment.

A presentation and public input workshop with the Business Attraction Plan Steering Committee, City Council, and Ellsworth Business Development Corp. is scheduled for Jan. 29, 6 p.m., at Ellsworth City Hall in the Council Chambers.  

The next step will be to continue implementing the plan, which has action steps that are already underway or require the economic development department to lay a path, with other partners being brought in at later stages. 

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