Pictured clockwise from top left is new high density housing on Oriole Way, a vacant former Rite-Aid building, a sign for a new restaurant coming to a former Denny's, and The Jackson Laboratory's mouse breeding facility at a former Lowe's home improvement store. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

In the late 1990s a Boston-based developer cleared 45 total acres on both sides of Myrick Street in Ellsworth, hoping to develop it into a dozen or so retail stores, but only two were built. Even though the city’s dreams of retail expansion haven’t lived up to what developers once expected, its  population has grown by leaps and bounds.

Since 1990 it has grown 40 percent. By comparison, Maine’s statewide population has risen nearly nearly 11 percent in that same time period.

The city’s continued growth — to the extent that it is predictable — will get renewed public attention over the next year or so as Ellsworth updates its comprehensive plan for the first time since 2004. The comprehensive plan, which the state requires municipalities to update every so often, is expected to help the city manage its growth by updating its zoning ordinances, prioritizing infrastructure upgrades, and evaluating services that it does or should offer, among other things. Municipalities are mandated by state law to have a comprehensive plan if they adopt zoning that exceeds the state’s minimum shoreland setback requirements, if they impose impact fees, or if they set caps on development.

“What do you see Ellsworth being in 10 years or 20 years?,” said Elena Piekut, Ellsworth’s city planner, when she briefed the elected city council on the upcoming update process. “It really is the public’s opportunity to provide marching orders in a sense to look at the current data conditions, needs and desires of the community and formulate this guiding policy document.”

Ellsworth is Hancock County’s primary service center, offering area residents and visitors a central place to shop for groceries and clothing, to visit a bank or a doctor, and to dine out or get their cars fixed. But as retail development in the city has slowed since the early 2000s, the city has still continued to attract residents who are looking for affordable housing and liveability.

With the population growth, so too has school enrollment grown. Likewise, dense housing developments have sprung up in its urban core and both the city and land trusts have sought to preserve its green spaces and improve its walkability — all things that likely will continue as more residents move in.

Pedestrians cross Main Street in downtown Ellsworth in this May 21, 2019, file photo. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

“We have a little bit of everything, and that’s what it takes to have a vibrant community with lots of opportunities,” Piekut said.

From 2010 to 2020, Hancock County’s population as a whole grew by less than 2 percent, or roughly 1,000 people, while Ellsworth’s population grew by 8.5 percent, or roughly 650 people. Since 2000, Ellsworth has gained nearly 2,000 new residents for a 30 percent growth rate, while the county population as a whole has grown by 9 percent.

The changes Ellsworth has seen in its retail sector over that same time period have been more of a mixed bag.

Home Depot opened on the west side of Myrick Street in 2001, and in 2009 Walmart opened a Supercenter across the street, moving from a smaller store near the Trenton town line. Today, the two big-box stores remain busy, but most of the cleared land along the street where more development was expected remains vacant.

Elsewhere along the city’s High Street corridor, which stretches south of downtown toward the city’s boundaries with Hancock, Trenton and Lamoine, there have been prominent empty buildings.

A Lowe’s home improvement store came and went in a matter of three years, a former Rite-Aid still stands unoccupied on High Street, and several retail spaces inside the Maine Coast Mall have been shuttered for years.

Workers remove letters from the front of a Lowe’s store in Ellsworth in this Monday, Nov. 14, 2011, file photo. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

Still, some new employers and businesses have moved to town. Convenient MD, Dairy Queen, Mattress Firm, TJ Maxx and Tractor Supply all renovated or redeveloped old commercial properties before opening their doors. The Jackson Laboratory so far has spent more than $150 million to repurpose the old Lowe’s into a mouse breeding facility, and new restaurants are expected to open this year in spaces vacated by Denny’s and Burger King.

The continued expansion in Ellsworth and Bar Harbor by Jackson Lab, which has added roughly 1,000 workers to its Hancock County roster since the late 1990s, is one reason Ellsworth’s population has grown.

Another is the lack of affordable housing on Mount Desert Island, where summer tourism at Acadia National Park has boomed — drawing millions of vehicles through Ellsworth each summer — and where every residential property has potential commercial use as a weekly vacation rental.

The growth in population has helped revitalize the city’s downtown with locally owned restaurants, professional offices and boutique shops even as national companies such as Burger King, Denny’s, Lowe’s and Rite-Aid have departed. And as demand for housing has increased, new apartments and townhouse-style developments have been built on Oriole Way, on Stone Park Way off Beechland Road, and on Hannah Way, and more are under construction.

The development of high-density housing in Ellsworth has helped the city remain relatively affordable compared with other communities in coastal Maine, even as the pandemic has encouraged more white-collar workers to flee big cities for smaller towns and to telecommute to their jobs.

The median price for a home in Ellsworth in 2021 was $269,000, nearly $56,000 less than Hancock County’s median price of $324,900, and between $56,000 to $257,000 less than 2021 median home prices in Belfast, Bar Harbor, Camden, Damariscotta and Rockport, according to the Maine State Housing Authority.

Beau Parker, 22, of Hermon works with Sean Sweeney, 40, of Ellsworth [on stilts] buffing sheetrock in an apartment at the Jefferson Luxe complex in Ellsworth in this April 17, 2019, file photo. Credit: Nick Sambides Jr. / BDN

Affordable housing, recreation, transportation, demographic changes, land use, natural resources, city spending priorities, regional coordination and other aspects of living in the city are expected to all be on the table as the city appoints a steering committee in the coming months, city officials said. Various subcommittees that focus on specific topics will draft ideas for possible inclusion in the updated plan.

Beyond committee appointments, there will be many rounds of public input over the 18-to-24 month process, which is essential to not only drafting the plan, but in getting the state to approve the final document, they said.

“We’re trying to make this as democratic as possible,” Janna Richards, the city’s economic development director, said about getting citizens involved.

Dale Hamilton, chair of the city council, said he sees the update process as a way to bring people with different perspectives together with a common purpose.

“The culture we’re in now, everything is so divisive,” Hamilton said. “I don’t think we want that for Ellsworth. [We need] to recognize that we all should compromise in what we think so that this can be something we can utilize to move the city forward.”

Piekut said that, for the plan to be effective, it will have to remain relevant and continue to be used as a resource, even after it has been updated and approved.

“Once it’s all adopted, the council and the planning board should both be using it in developing and amending regulations, making decisions about the capital improvements plan,” the city planner said. “The role of the public at that point is to continue to stay engaged and remind decision-makers that this is the document that should be looked to when those decisions are being made.”

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....