A Portland developer and The Jackson Laboratory are collaborating on what might be a 100-unit housing development as part of an attempt to curb the lab’s worker-housing shortage on Mount Desert Island.
Called The Schooner Head Housing Project, the project’s first phase will include 44 apartments in five buildings on a 37-acre lot owned by the laboratory, which is a nonprofit research institution, along Schooner Head Road, said Catherine “Katy” Longley, Jackson Lab’s executive vice president and chief operating officer.
Affordable housing is a perennial issue on Mount Desert Island, where development is constrained by the shoreline, Acadia National Park and real estate and rental prices that — due to the demand during the island’s congested summer tourist season — are beyond the reach of what many local working residents can afford. Other local employers such as hotel firms and Acadia National Park also struggle with finding housing for their workers, many of whom are seasonal.
“The first phase of the project is expected to be completed during the summer of 2021. Phase one includes 44 units, with the long-term goal of two additional phases totaling 100 units. We will have more details about additional phases as the project plan develops,” Longley said Tuesday.
The laboratory is partnering with Developers Collaborative from Portland. Developers Collaborative will develop the project as well as own, lease and manage the building units. The apartments will be available as long-term rentals for company employees only, according to the statement.
Longley said that worker housing was the largest issue her administration faced when she was interviewed by the Bangor Daily News in February 2019.
Longley, who became the lab’s chief operating officer in summer 2018 when Charles Hewett retired, said, “I go to every new employee coffee [gathering] in Bar Harbor, and the No. 1 issue the employees say is, ‘I can’t find a place to live.’ So they can’t find a year-round rental or they find the property prices [prohibitive].”
Jackson Lab, which uses mice to study human disease and illness and breeds specialty strains of mice used in biomedical research around the globe, had roughly 700 total employees in the late 1990s. As of February 2019, the lab has more than 2,000 employees, 1,400 of whom are based in Bar Harbor. Roughly 350 work in Farmington, Connecticut; 370 at its mouse production facility in Sacramento, California; and more at its new mouse production facility, or vivarium, in Ellsworth. Nearly 70 more work remotely.
Updated employment statistics, and an idea of how the new housing would alleviate the company’s housing shortage, were not available on Tuesday. Officials at Jackson Lab and Developers Collaborative did not immediately respond to requests seeking additional comment.
Jackson Lab moved most of its Maine mouse production capacity to Ellsworth from Bar Harbor to shorten the commute for many of its employees who do not live on Mount Desert Island, including those who travel daily from southern Penobscot or western Washington counties. And by moving to a site that is a half-hour closer to those places, the lab expanded the area from which it draws employees to include Belfast, communities beyond Bangor, or even Machias, Longley said.
The applicant met with the Bar Harbor Planning Board on March 4. The board will hold a site visit at 10 a.m. March 20, with a neighborhood meeting to immediately follow, said Steve Fuller, the town’s assistant planner. Fuller said he expects at least two meetings will follow before the board votes.
Developers Collaborative is a familiar company in Hancock County. The company is building a 51-unit housing complex in Ellsworth on Foster Street behind Shaw’s supermarket on High Street. The proposed Foster Street Apartments complex would mix 24 two-bedroom apartments in two buildings that would rent at market rate, about $1,300 a month, with 27 single-bedroom affordable senior citizen apartments in a third large building.
The company built another development last year, Oriole Way, a $9 million, 50-unit apartment complex. That development included two- and three-bedroom apartments on Washington Street behind the Renys on High Street.
The Oriole Way project, one of the city’s largest, was completed in 2018 and fully occupied as of last May or June.