ELLSWORTH, Maine — The Jackson Laboratory’s new facility in Ellsworth, a mouse breeding center called a vivarium, is proposed to have a new perimeter fence, a move the lab says is a necessity given modern security concerns.
The lab’s headquarters in Bar Harbor does not have any outward security barriers, but other Jackson Lab facilities in California and Connecticut do. Lab officials call the security enhancement a product of caution.
“We’re raising laboratory animals,” said Norman Burdzel, facilities engineer for the lab and project manager for the $140 million renovation project in Ellsworth. “There are certain groups that oppose that. We’re just trying to be cautious.”
Officials with the medical research laboratory appeared before the city’s planning board on Dec. 7 to go over paperwork the lab has to submit to the city for approval to convert the former Lowe’s retail store on Kingsland Crossing into a 200,000-square-foot research mouse production facility. Lab officials are expected to meet again with the board in the coming months to get final approval for the finished design.
Burdzel told the planning board that much of the site already has a chain link security fence around the sides and behind of the existing building, installed when Lowe’s built it in 2007. The building has been vacant since Lowe’s closed the store in November 2011.
Jackson Lab bought the building for $3.2 million in October 2012.
The lab’s West Coast mouse production facility in Sacramento, California, which opened in 2001, has a perimeter security fence, Burdzel said, and the lab’s genome research center at the University of Connecticut, which opened two years ago, has “smaller” fences.
Jackson Lab is an independent, nonprofit biomedical research institution known worldwide for its research into human disease and for breeding scientifically engineered mice for biomedical research around the globe. It employs about 1,800 people, including about 1,200 in Bar Harbor.
Burdzel said Jackson Lab officials have looked into erecting a fence around its 126-acre Bar Harbor campus, which is much larger than the 17-acre parcel in Ellsworth, but has decided — for the time being, anyway — not to do so.
The Bar Harbor site, which dates back to the lab’s founding in 1929 and abuts Acadia National Park, already has a “virtual” fence, he said, with security cameras and guards on duty around the clock.
John Fitzpatrick, the lab’s facilities director, said Friday that the fence around its Ellsworth site is a normal security precaution, no different from a paper company putting in a fence and guardhouse at a mill or from Emera installing a security fence around a substation.
He said there are some parts of the Bar Harbor campus that do have security fences that aren’t visible from the road.
“The world has changed,” Fitzpatrick said, adding that cybersecurity or even corporate espionage are factors the lab must consider when building new facilities and protecting its assets and the well-being of its employees. The well-being of its employees, he added, is the lab’s chief concern.
“We take everything into consideration,” Fitzpatrick said.
In an emailed statement, lab spokeswoman Joyce Peterson said landscaping at the Ellsworth location will help obscure the view of the front section of fence from Kingsland Crossing.
“[Jackson Lab] puts tremendous emphasis on creating attractive and welcoming environments for all our campuses,” Peterson wrote. “Obviously different campuses have different needs; Bar Harbor’s location on our 126-acre campus, adjacent to [Acadia] is going to call for one kind of security approach, and Ellsworth, in a congested urban area, will be another.”
Burdzel emphasized the lab wishes to be a good neighbor in Ellsworth, where it plans to employ up to 250 people within the next few years. He said some work at the site has started, and that the finished product will be “beautiful.” He said the lab still plans to have the initial phase completed and to begin mouse breeding operations at the site by January 2018.
According to Fitzpatrick, the lab expects to generate about $70 million in mouse sales revenue each year at the Ellsworth site, which is expected to open a little more than a year from now at about 25 percent of that production capacity.
The complete renovation of the former Lowe’s into a mouse vivarium could be completed by about 2020 if Maine voters provide funding next year through an expected research and development bond proposal, he said.
If that public funding does not come through, Fitzpatrick added, the project likely would take a few more years to complete while the lab funds it through revenue generated by mouse sales.