Kelp is cut to length before packaging at Maine Coast Sea Vegetables in this 2014 file photo. The company is one of several small-scale manufacturers and processors that have set up shop in or near Ellsworth since 2005. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

Ellsworth is becoming a place where small firms that make stuff are setting up shop.

In the past decade or so, a handful of small-scale specialty manufacturers have moved to the city, or close to it, helping to diversify the local economy as the retail sector has struggled.

Among the manufacturing and processing companies that have set up shop in or just outside Ellsworth since 2005 are Superior Docks, which makes aluminum ramps and walkways, weather instrument maker RainWise, and Maine Coast Sea Vegetables, which produces edible seaweeds. RainWise, formerly located in tourist-heavy downtown Bar Harbor, is located on Route 3 in Trenton, while Maine Coast Sea Vegetables moved from Franklin to the neighboring town of Hancock, less than half a mile from the city line, in 2015.

More recently, craft brewery Fogtown Brewing has established its retail and production operations in downtown Ellsworth on Pine Street and, in the past couple of weeks, Desert Harvest has moved from North Carolina into the Maine Grind Building on Main Street. Desert Harvest, a maker of aloe vera-based health supplements, has its products made out of state but will use the downtown site for its main office and its online shipping center.

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On a larger scale, Jackson Lab also has become one of the newest production entities in Ellsworth. The Bar Harbor-based, not-for-profit biomedical research institution began moving its mouse-production division, which ships specially bred research mice to scientists around the globe, to a former Lowe’s home improvement store in 2018 — and is still in the process of renovating the 200,000-square foot building at Kingsland Crossing. Roughly 90 of the lab’s 1,700 employees in Maine, the vast majority of whom work in Bar Harbor, work in Ellsworth.

“We want these [types of] companies to move to Ellsworth,” Janna Richards, the city’s economic development director, said about firms that make and “export” goods out of the city. She said Ellsworth also has sought to attract startups that provide goods and services to Maine’s biotech industry, which includes Bar Harbor-based Jackson Laboratory and Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory.

Some of the specialty technology startups in Ellsworth such as Gel Hydration Technologies, which makes products that keep research mice hydrated when they are shipped across the globe, are located in the city’s Union River Center for Innovation, next to the city marina on Water Street, Richards said.

“It is a major focus of ours,” she said about trying to diversify Ellsworth’s economy so it is not so heavily reliant on retail. She said the city has been trying to help local stores and restaurants, too, by offering advice on how to broaden their online sales.

Ellsworth has benefited from some retail growth in the past 20 years, with Home Depot and a Walmart Supercenter opening in the city during that time period. But at times its downtown has struggled — though Main Street has enjoyed a resurgence in the past few years — and there continue to be empty retail spaces along High Street at Maine Coast Mall and where a Rite-Aid pharmacy closed in 2018.

The COVID-19 pandemic clearly hasn’t helped. The local Denny’s restaurant closed in May, and a new ConvenientMD building constructed on High Street last winter has yet to open. Many restaurants and hotels in Hancock County, which cater to summer tourists who visit nearby Acadia National Park, saw their business plummet this spring and not really recover.

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Manufacturing and processing are not brand new to Ellsworth. Blueberry processor Allen’s Blueberry Freezer, with operations in Ellsworth and nearby in Hancock, has operated in the city for decades, and Hancock County long has been home to boatbuilding firms such as Hinckley Yachts and Brooklin Boat Yard.

Aquaculture is another sector that is growing statewide, but firms such as Sea & Reef in Franklin show that companies don’t have to rely on traditional Maine industries or natural resources to thrive in the state, Richards said. Sea & Reef grows tropical fish in a controlled indoor aquatic environment but serves a global market, she said.

“They ship internationally,” Richards said. “If more [small businesses] come to the Ellsworth area and they have similar products, they can co-locate and shipping becomes easier.”

Plus, some consumer goods are selling quite well despite the pandemic, including grocery items and home improvement supplies, she added. Ellsworth-area companies that produce items for those markets stand to benefit.

“People are doing things at home and they are seriously buying goods,” Richards said. “Slowly but surely, [more small-scale manufacturers] will come. I think we are starting to see that.”

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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....