A worker walks across an overhanging roof above the entrance to The Jackson Laboratory's Charles E. Hewett Center while another hoses it down on Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2020. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

The Jackson Laboratory is on pace this month to complete a $74 million phase of its conversion of a former Lowe’s store in Ellsworth into its primary mouse reproduction facility.

After that, it has plans for a subsequent $80 million phase of the conversion at the same site, but still has to secure permits for that work, which is not expected to be completed until 2026.

The first phase of the project, estimated to cost $75 million, was completed in 2018. Overall, the projected cost of repurposing the 200,000-square-foot building is estimated to be around $240 million.

Catherine Longley, the lab’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, and Leah Graham, its manager for government affairs, briefed the Ellsworth City Council on Monday about the progress the lab is making in converting the former home improvement store on Beechland Crossing into its primary mouse reproduction facility. Jackson Lab uses mice to study human health and reproduces mice that it sells to biomedical research facilities around the world.

Graham told the council that the second phase of the multi-year conversion project was put on hold when the COVID-19 pandemic spread to Maine in March, but later resumed with COVID-19 protocols in place for all contractors, including social distancing requirements, face masks and symptom screening provided by North Light Health.

The second renovation phase inside the former Lowe’s has produced more mouse reproduction rooms, as well as a cafeteria and a gym for employees. Roughly 90 employees have been hired to work in Ellsworth while the vast majority of Jackson Lab’s 1,736 employees in Maine nominally work at its headquarters in Bar Harbor. Roughly one-third of the lab’s workforce has been working from home during the pandemic.

Lab officials have said they expect to have around 350 employees working at the Ellsworth location after the building’s transformation into a mouse vivarium is complete.

The ongoing renovation of the big-box store into a state-of-the-art scientific facility is just part of the economic impact the laboratory has on Ellsworth and the state, lab officials said.

Its overall statewide economic impact in Maine in 2019 was $732 million, including $136 million that it paid to its employees. The lab did business with 569 different vendors in Maine last year and, as of the end of 2019, was the 15th largest employer in the state.

Ellsworth is where 326 of the lab’s employees live — roughly the same number as in Bar Harbor — and where the lab did business with 48 vendors in 2019. The not-for-profit lab spent $390,000 in Ellsworth last year in water and sewer costs, taxes, permits and other costs. This includes a voluntary $50,000 contribution to the city in lieu of taxes in connection with the mouse reproduction facility, and nearly $40,000 in property taxes for an employee daycare center nearby on Beechland Road, which is not exempt from taxation.

In addition to the 650 or so employees who live in Ellsworth and Bar Harbor, 87 live in Trenton and 173 more live in other towns on Mount Desert Island, lab officials said.

Lab employees who work in Hancock County live as far away as Bangor in Penobscot County and in western Washington County, due to the scarcity of affordable housing on MDI, which is one reason why the lab has plans to develop apartments for its employees near its Bar Harbor campus on Schooner Head Road.

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....