ELLSWORTH, Maine — To hear John Babine tell it, Harbor Park and Marina is home to a rare kind of Americana.
The parking lot at the marina is full most evenings. Visitors throw around Frisbees, others bask in the sunlight and breezes off the Union River, and a food shack in the park does a brisk business in hamburgers and fries.
The city holds weekly concerts during the summer that feature country music and jazz. People walk their pets or sit on park benches and write letters while fishing boats glide to their berths.
“It reminds me of something that you see in old black-and-white movies,” said Babine, the city’s assistant harbormaster.
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All that the town-owned recreation space needs is a connection to downtown to vastly increase Ellsworth’s livability, City Manager David Cole said.
That’s why Cole hopes to extend the park’s 175-foot brick walking trail another 425 feet to Water Street as a first step toward creating a pedestrian link between the marina and downtown.
“It’s the beginning of an earnest waterfront development plan,” Cole said.
City officials will be finalizing a concept plan for the park and starting to seek grant money to build out the trail this fall, Cole said.
The idea: To create walking paths or other pedestrian connections between several key parts of Ellsworth. Ideally, the paths would connect Harbor Park to downtown and to the shopping centers along Route 1A via Washington Street.
Route 1A also parallels another of the city’s prime recreation spaces, Cole said — one end of the 87-mile Down East Sunrise Trail, which veers from Route 1A toward Washington Junction.
City officials hope to create a concept plan and begin seeking grants to fund the marina’s trail expansion this fall.
Making the riverfront more pedestrian-friendly will likely take years, and the city has no timeline set for the plan, but the idea is made timely by the construction of several new housing developments along Washington Street, Cole said.
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One of the entrepreneurs behind the new housing, Portland-area developer Matt Teare, said that Harbor Park was among the reasons his organization, Developers Collaborative, chose Washington Street for its 50-unit development.
His $9 million Oriole Way townhouse project is under construction now, and he hopes to have five townhouses finished and filled with tenants in November, he said.
“Having [properties] within walking distance of shopping and other amenities is what we’re about,” Teare said. “It’s a strong smart-growth area for us.”
Elsewhere, the collaborative is developing Stevens Square Active Adult Community in Portland, Motherhouse Senior Housing in Portland, and Railroad Square and Village Run in Yarmouth.
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Oriole Way is among 155 housing units or apartments that have been built overlooking Union River in the area between Washington, High and Water streets since the 1980s, said Steve Fuller, Ellsworth’s assistant city planner.
Many people associate Ellsworth’s housing boom with the launch of The Jackson Laboratory’s $200 million research-mice breeding facility last week, but the buildout has more to do with accumulated demand than the vivarium, Cole said.
“We want to keep the city continually growing, and we want to do it within the city’s established areas first,” Cole said. “It’s more economical.”
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