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In the past year, Ryan Bates added a second building to his property, opening a specialty food market, Acadia Provisions. The investment came just a few years after buying land to expand his Global Beverage Warehouse.
The businesses are in a retail development at the corner of High Street and Route 3, a busy corridor through Ellsworth that has lately become a hub of development. Across the street from Bates' shops, a new First National Bank branch is going up. Nearby, Jackson Laboratory last summer opened a $200 million facility to produce lab mice. And throughout the city there are new retailers, galleries and a brewery.
The location taps a steady stream of traffic, including commuters and summertime visitors. Ellsworth is regional destination for retail of all kinds and basic services — and Global Beverage Warehouse and Acadia Provisions are part of that.
“Ellsworth is a spot where people come from all around,” Bates says. “It's a major hub for shopping. People come from Downeast Maine, from Machias even. They come all the way up from the midcoast. It's a booming little city.”
Others agree. The city approved $30.5 million in construction in 2018, a total of 346,265 square feet in commercial and multi-family residential projects. That's three times the 10-year average of $8.5 million per year.
“There are definitely development opportunities here,” says Matthew Gurney of Coastal Maine General Contracting Inc., which is building a $2.5 million First National branch.
The journey of Gurney's company itself speaks to those opportunities. Founded in Machias, the company established an Ellsworth office to leverage the city's growth.
“We decided about four years ago we needed to do something to grow our business, and not have long stretches with little work,” Gurney says. “We were in Ellsworth a lot anyway for materials and supplies, and doing lot of work on MDI. That spilled over to Ellsworth, Hancock, Trenton. A lot of folks who live in the small communities shop and do business in Ellsworth, so it has a lot of pull. Because of its size, it attracts people for work. So we have growth in this area.”
Wallace Events was similarly attracted to site its expansion, adding three buildings totaling 20,000 square feet to its existing 10,000-square-foot facility in Ellsworth Commerce Park. Ellsworth is central to the company's work throughout the region, says Jake Taylor, owner and general manager of Wallace Events.
“Ellsworth is a business-friendly environment and community,” Taylor says. As a regional nexus, Ellsworth provides an easy reach to service points in all directions. “Ellsworth's geography is a big advantage,” he adds.
Ellsworth is leveraging its location as a crossroads. It's on the Route 1, Route 1A and Route 3 corridors, near the convergence of Interstate 95 and Route 1A. For many travelers, it's en route to Acadia National Park, Bangor, Downeast and midcoast regions and the Blue Hill, Deer Isle and Schoodic peninsulas. It's near assets like airports, higher education, health care systems and recreational opportunities. Its population growth of 21.7% from 2000 to 2015 is five times the state's growth rate, says City Manager David Cole.
“People are voting with their feet,” Cole says.
Ellsworth is Maine's largest city geographically, at 94 square miles. Development tends to be in the city center. Development spans chain stores, small retailers, business expansions, historic-building renovations, remodels and residential clusters.
Along High Street, Alrig USA Development of Bingham Farms, Mich., recently completed development of a retail complex whose tenants include Aspen Dental, AutoZone and Mattress Firm. Across the street, in the Maine Coast Mall, Hannaford invested $3.9 million in a remodel. Maine Coast Mall recently completed development of a stand-alone pad site for a Dairy Queen. Downtown renovations of historic buildings are accommodating new ground-floor retail and upper-story residential.
Cara Romano and her husband, contractor David LaValle, last year bought an 1840s building at 6 State St., for $225,000. They'll renovate it for a ground-floor gallery, Romano's (KoT) Contemporary Functional Craft, as well as upper-story residential.
Teri Sargent Smith, a broker with Sargent Real Estate and a potter, bought 108 Main St. with a partner. Renovations will allowed for space for her pottery studio.
“With the push to revitalize Main Street, it was essential that there was more residential rental spaces,” says Smith.
There are new galleries, shops and eateries. Jon Stein and Ian Heyse renovated the bottom floor of a former industrial building at 25 Pine St. to open Fogtown Brewing Co. Stein says they were attracted to the cultural scene and envision helping to grow the year-round economy.
At the same time, the city's establishment of Union River Center for Innovation, a technology startup incubator, is expected to spark other STEM enterprises, says Cole, the city manager.
The wave is driven in part by the recent arrival of Jackson Lab, whose Ellsworth campus, 20 miles from its Bar Harbor campus, is expected to bring 350 jobs within 10 years.
Yet Jackson Lab's multiplier effect goes far beyond jobs created, he adds.
“Anytime you create a service or a product and it goes out, it brings money back in,” Cole says. “JAX is producing laboratory mice and selling them all over the world. When you look at people moving in, needing services, ongoing construction — it's amazing how a major investment like that spins out.”
Development here isn't exploding the way it is in Portland. But observers agree it's a slow but steady response to a growing sense of Ellsworth's potential as a commercial hub and service center.
Businesses, getting customers from Ellsworth and surrounding towns, find the location rewarding, says Dan MacIntyre, Maine Coast Mall's leasing agent.
“Hannaford's numbers are incredible,” he says. “For them to put a $4 million renovation into the store is great. It's a hub thing. And they know that.”
“Our store reports seeing increased activity beyond seasonal influxes,” says Ericka Dodge, Hannaford's manager of external communications. “We know already that we are a destination for shoppers in the area — and as such we are making a major investment with this extensive remodel.”
It's one reason Ellsworth has a year-round base of customers.
“I've got friends who don't live in Ellsworth who say, 'We're going to come in and do our shopping,'” says Dan Sargent of Sargent Real Estate. “I think it's a destination, especially in the wintertime when other areas close down because they're seasonal communities.”
MacIntyre is concerned there may be a perception, in the larger world, that Ellsworth is a seasonal opportunity rather than a year-round hub. That could be a hindrance to some outside businesses as they consider whether or not to settle here.
“There are some people kicking the tires, but whether it comes to fruition or not is a different story,” MacIntyre says.
Some are concerned that additional development could worsen the labor shortage.
“We're competing with the [Mount Desert Island] people for labor, where you can make $20 per hour as a dishwasher — and they can't fill those positions,” says Bates.
It goes back to perception, says Stein. “Young people who would be part of the workforce want to be part of a vibrant community, so a lot of them go to Portland or even farther south, like Boston,” says Stein. “They don't necessarily see value in Ellsworth. Hopefully there will be a turning point.”
Ellsworth's recent residential development helps.
“We recognized two or three years ago that, if we're going to create jobs and move forward, we need the people and so we need the housing,” says Cole. In 2016, the city successfully began connecting with developers. Now there are 164 rental units in the queue.
“We'll continue to push that,” he says.