People come and go from the Grand Auditorium on Main Street in downtown Ellsworth on Friday, Oct. 12, 2018. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

Despite population declines in several Hancock County towns from 2010 to 2020, robust growth in Ellsworth and nearby towns helped the county’s overall population increase by nearly 2 percent in the past decade.

The number of residents in Ellsworth, the county seat and its largest municipality, grew by approximately 650 people, from roughly 7,750 to 8,400, for an 8.5 percent population increase, according to figures recently released by the U.S. Census Bureau. The city anchored a swath of eight contiguous communities in central Hancock County — from Blue Hill to Franklin — that each had population growth of 3 percent or more since 2010. Together, those eight communities added more than 1,300 residents to their resident populations for a growth rate just shy of 7 percent.

While the growth in Ellsworth is continuing, it has cooled from the prior decade, when the city added 1,285 residents and had a growth rate of 19.9 percent from 2000 to 2010.

Outside the Ellsworth area, since 2010 the county’s population has decreased at its eastern, northern and western edges. The overall population on Mount Desert Island — where the high cost of housing and the conversion of hundreds of homes into commercial vacation rental properties have pushed many residents to move to or close to Ellsworth — also declined, though by less than 1 percent. 

Bar Harbor’s population dropped by 2.8 percent, from 5,235 residents to 5,089, while the smaller towns of Southwest Harbor and Tremont lost fewer people, resulting in declines closer to and below 1 percent. Unlike its neighboring towns, Mount Desert saw a 4.5 percent population increase, adding more than 90 residents since 2010.

A lot of attention has been paid to the decreasing population in the local village of Northeast Harbor — where the Mount Desert municipal offices, the town’s elementary school, and many of its businesses are located — but recent housing developments on the west side of Mount Desert, near the villages of Somesville and Pretty Marsh, might have helped grow the town’s population, said Town Manager Durlin Lunt.

It is also possible that when census takers went around knocking on doors in the spring of 2020, they came across some people who normally are in town only in the summer, but who had traveled to Maine from out of state to get away from COVID-19 outbreaks in large cities, he said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if that were a contributing factor,” Lunt said.

Jarod Farn-Guillette, director of the Hancock County Planning Commission, said he thinks population growth in Hancock County might now be bigger than what the Census Bureau measured early last year. He said he believes there are “a lot” of so-called COVID refugees who have moved to Maine and Hancock County since last summer. 

Many who have moved to the area from bigger cities out of state are drawn to towns with village centers where they can walk downtown and services are readily available, he said, but he’s also heard from small, more rural towns that say their student enrollment numbers for the coming fall have gone up.

“I think we’re seeing population increases everywhere in Hancock County,” Farn-Guillette said.

Near Ellsworth, the towns of Blue Hill, Lamoine, Surry and Trenton each added more than 100 residents, with Surry adding the most (166) for an 11 percent growth rate, according to census data. Hancock and Franklin each added fewer than 100 people, growing by 3 percent and more than 5 percent respectively. Unorganized Fletcher’s Landing — with a relatively tiny population of fewer than 150 people — grew by more than 12 percent.

The steepest population percentage decline in the county was on the remote island community of Frenchboro, which for years has struggled to retain residents. More than half of its population has left since 2010, shrinking from 61 people to 29.  The prior decade, from 2000 to 2010, Frenchboro’s population grew from 38 residents to 61.

The county’s other island communities saw population increases. The population of Deer Isle, which is connected to the mainland by a bridge over Eggemoggin Reach, grew by 11 percent, while adjacent Stonington grew by 13 people, or more than 1 percent.

Swan’s Island and Cranberry Isles, both of which are accessible by ferry from MDI, gained 23 and 19 residents respectively, for growth percentages of nearly 7 percent and more than 13 percent.

On the west side of the county, Castine, Penobscot and Verona Island saw their populations respectively decline by 3 percent, 10 percent and nearly 7 percent. To the east, Gouldsboro, Sullivan and Winter Harbor also lost residents, though Winter Harbor’s decline was the steepest of those three — a 10 percent decline for that town, compared to drops of less than 2 percent in Gouldsboro and Sullivan.

In more remote northern Hancock County, where the numbers of residents have long been much lower than towns closer to the coast, the decline in percentages were relatively high: 6.5 percent in Amherst, 18.5 percent in Aurora, 8 percent in Mariaville and nearly 6 percent in Waltham. Dedham, which lies along the main connector road between Hancock County and Bangor, saw a population decline of nearly 2 percent.

The populations of Brooklin, Brooksville, Bucksport, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Orland, Osborn, Otis, Sedgwick and Sorrento did not change much. Each of them either gained or lost up to half a percentage point of their populations, or at most five people.

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....