An aerial view of land purchased by the Downeast Institute.
The Downeast Institute is buying 10 acres next to its campus on Great Wass Island. It will include several cottages, pictured in this aerial view, that are intended to house researchers. Credit: Courtesy of the Downeast Institute

The Washington County marine science lab is buying 10 acres next to its campus to ensure more housing for the growing program. 

Housing scarcity is so bad one student lived in a tent when they were told they had to leave a seasonal rental while another employee at the institute moved six times in three years. Students often have to stay in Machias, which is nearly an hour away. 

The Downeast Institute is purchasing a trio of properties on Great Wass Island for $900,000. The land includes six homes and some undeveloped shoreline, which will allow the institute more opportunities to attract researchers to the rocky outcrop. 

“We are interested in it because we’ve grown so much that we’ve outstripped our ability to house people,” said Diane Tilton, the Downeast Institute’s executive director. 

In the past few years, the science facility has increased the number of undergraduate interns and started a fellowship program to bring more researchers to the island off Beals. The nonprofit has some housing on campus, but students, visiting researchers and potential new hires often think twice about going due to a lack of places to live

“We’ve attracted a bunch of people to work here but they have a hard time finding a place to live,” Tilton said. “There really isn’t anything much in the local community.” 

Several other scientific outfits in the region have bought real estate. The Jackson Laboratory recently built its own apartments in Bar Harbor because employees couldn’t find places to live.

The institute’s purchase from its neighbor, a descendant of the Beal family, will also include access to a mudflat that is within walking distance from campus. Tilton said the additional shorefront will bolster the state’s shrinking access to clam flats and aid the institute’s shellfish research.

The Downeast Institute has purchase and sale agreements with the owner and the sale is set to go through next month. The institute plans to embark on a $2 million capital campaign next year to pay for the real estate and help with any needed renovations. 

“We couldn’t pass this up,” Tilton said. “Everyone says this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I’m pretty sure they’re right.”