ELLSWORTH, Maine — About 200 people gathered early Tuesday afternoon in a vacant home improvement box store to mark the beginning of a $75 million renovation project.

The renovation and expansion of the former Lowe’s store by The Jackson Laboratory into a production facility for research mice was praised Tuesday by federal, state and Ellsworth officials as a major feat of economic development for the city, region and state.

“This is a day we have longed for, and have waited for,” Bob Crosthwaite, chairman of Ellsworth’s City Council, said at the ceremonial groundbreaking. “It’s a red-letter day for Ellsworth.”

The lab plans to use the site as a vivarium, or production facility, for the more than 3 million research mice it breeds each year for itself and other biomedical research facilities around the globe.

Charles Hewett, the lab’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, said the $75 million investment in Ellsworth represents just the first phase of the overall project to make the former home improvement store the lab’s primary mouse production facility. In the next few years after the lab opens in Ellsworth, which is scheduled to occur by the end of 2017, the lab intends to spend an additional $65 million — for a grand total of $140 million — to quadruple the vivarium’s production capacity.

Hewett said the lab is contributing $71 million toward the initial phase of the project, with the rest coming through federal grants, which is the largest sum the lab’s board has committed to any project. For the second $65 million phase, he added, the lab will need a greater share of supporting public funds.

“We can’t do this project for $140 million in just a couple of years without your help,” Hewett said. “We will be looking both to the federal government, state government, as well as private sources for help with Phase 2 so that we can be sure that [Jackson Lab] is here for the rest of this century.”

Sitting next to the lectern when Hewett made his remarks were U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin and John Butera, economic advisor to Gov. Paul LePage.

When the Ellsworth project is complete, Hewett added, it will hold the position as the most technologically advanced mouse vivarium on the planet, a title he said belongs to the lab’s vivarium in Sacramento, California.

Lab officials have said they plan to have 100 employees at the site when they begin operations there by Jan. 1, 2018. Within a few years after that, as they scale up production, the lab expects to have 230 people working at the Kingsland Crossing facility, of which three-quarters are expected to be new hires. The rest are projected to be employees whose jobs have been transferred from Bar Harbor to Ellsworth.

The lab’s research division, in which investigators use specially bred mice to explore ways to treat human diseases and medical conditions, will remain in Bar Harbor.

Norman Burdzel, Jackson Lab’s project manager for the vivarium, said Tuesday that the lab already has received a demolition permit for removing the old Lowe’s storefront facade and that, on Wednesday, it hopes to get final approval from the Ellsworth Planning Board for renovating the former home improvement store.

He said the lab hopes to begin demolition this week and start construction in a couple of weeks.

He said the lab plans to expand the footprint of the existing 140,000-square-foot building by extending the front of the building to the east, into the existing parking lot, adding another 31,000 square feet of space on that side. In addition, the lab plans to enclose the existing slab on the northeast corner of the building, which used to be the Lowe’s outdoor center, thus adding another 37,000 square feet to the building’s interior floorplan.

All told, the new vivarium will have more than 200,000 square feet of interior space on the main floor. Lab officials have said they plan to add a second floor on the inside of the building’s new new eastern facade, which will be used for offices and climate-control equipment.

The expansion to Ellsworth helps to address two significant issues Jackson Lab has faced as it has grown in Bar Harbor over the past 25 years: limited space in Bar Harbor and filling job openings, lab officials have said.

Moving the vivarium operations to Ellsworth frees up space for research expansion on the Bar Harbor campus and shortens the commute for hundreds of employees who live off Mount Desert Island, some of whom travel daily from Bangor and western Washington County to get to their jobs, lab officials said.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....