Ellsworth predicts future growth as population grows and retail development slows

In the late 1990s, a Boston-based developer cleared a total of 45 acres on both sides of Myrick Street in Ellsworth, hoping to develop it into a dozen retail stores, but only two were built. Although the city’s dreams of commercial expansion fell short of the developers’ expectations, its population grew by leaps and bounds.

Since 1990, it has increased by 40%. In comparison, the population of the state of Maine increased by almost 11% during the same period.

The city’s continued growth – so far as it is foreseeable – 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, that the state requires municipalities to update all so often, it is expected to help the city manage its growth by updating its zoning ordinances, prioritizing upgrades to infrastructure and by evaluating the services it offers or should offer, among other things. Municipalities are required by state law to have a comprehensive plan if they adopt zoning that exceeds the state’s minimum requirements for shoreline setbacks, impose impact fees, or set development limits.

‘What do you see Ellsworth being like in 10 or 20 years?’ said Elena Piekut, Ellsworth’s town planner, when she briefed the elected council on the upcoming update process. “It’s really an opportunity for the public to give marching orders in the direction of looking at the current data conditions, community needs and wants, and formulating this guiding policy document.”

Ellsworth is Hancock County’s main service center, providing area residents and visitors with a central location to shop for groceries and clothes, visit a bank or doctor, and dine or have their car repaired. But as retail development in the city has slowed since the early 2000s, the city has continued to attract residents seeking affordable housing and livability.

With population growth, school enrollment has also increased. Likewise, dense residential developments have sprung up in its urban core and the city and land trusts have sought to preserve its green spaces and improve its walkability – all of which will likely continue as more residents will move in.

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

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

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

The changes Ellsworth has seen in its retail sector over the same period have been more mixed.

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

Elsewhere along the city’s High Street corridor, which stretches south from the city center towards the city limits with Hancock, Trenton and Lamoine, there have been significant empty buildings.

A Lowe’s home improvement store has come and gone in the space of three years, a former Rite-Aid is still unoccupied on the High Street and several retail spaces inside the Maine Coast Mall have been closed for decades. years.

Workmen remove letters from the front of a Lowe’s store in Ellsworth this Monday November 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 have all renovated or remodeled former commercial properties before opening their doors. The Jackson Laboratory has so far spent more than $150 million to turn the old Lowe’s into a mouse-breeding facility, and new restaurants are expected to open this year in space vacated by Denny’s and Burger King.

Continued expansion in Ellsworth and Bar Harbor by Jackson Lab, which has added approximately 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 in Acadia National Park has exploded – drawing millions of vehicles through Ellsworth each summer – and where every residential property has potential commercial use as a rental. weekly vacation.

Population growth has helped revitalize the city’s downtown area with local restaurants, professional offices, and shops, even after the departure of national businesses such as Burger King, Denny’s, Lowe’s, and Rite-Aid. And as demand for housing has increased, new apartments and townhouse-style developments have been built on Oriole Way, Stone Park Way near Beechland Road and Hannah Way, with more under construction.

High-density housing development in Ellsworth has helped the town remain relatively affordable compared to other coastal Maine communities, even as the pandemic has encouraged more white-collar workers to flee the big cities for smaller towns and telecommute to get to work.

According to the Maine State Housing Authority.

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

Affordable housing, recreation, transportation, changing demographics, land use, natural resources, city spending priorities, regional coordination, and other aspects of city life should all be on the table as the city appoints a steering committee in the coming months, city officials said. Various sub-committees that focus on specific topics will draft ideas for possible inclusion in the updated plan.

Beyond committee nominations, there will be many rounds of public comment during the 18-24 month process, which is essential not only to write the plan, but also to get the state to approve the document. final, they said.

“We’re trying to make this as democratic as possible,” Janna Richards, the city’s director of economic development, said of citizen engagement.

City Council President Dale Hamilton said he saw the update process as a way to bring people with different perspectives together for a common purpose.

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

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

“Once everything is passed, council and planning board should both use it to develop and amend by-laws, make decisions about the capital improvement plan,” the planner said. “The role of the public at this point is to continue to stay engaged and to remind decision-makers that this is the document that should be consulted when these decisions are made.”