ELLSWORTH — With a population of over 8,000 residents, according to 2019 Census estimates, Ellsworth is a city that continues to grow. More than 400 people have moved to or been born in the “Gateway to Downeast Maine” since 2010, while in the decade prior to that Ellsworth was the fastest growing city in the state. Yet, with more people comes more development, organizations and businesses — and opinions on what city officials should focus on.
“What’s inherent in our economic development strategy is quality of place,” Janna Richards said in 2019, six months after taking on the role of Ellsworth’s director of economic development.
This still holds true, she recently said. “We understand what our assets are, and we want to capitalize on them.”
Richards, who also has the eye of a planner from past work as planning director in Bar Harbor and town planner in Orono, sees continued growth as positive for Ellsworth, at least from an economic development standpoint.
“Economic development doesn’t happen if we don’t have people,” she said. “There’s ways that make Ellsworth attractive to business and people, and a lot of that is quality of life.”
For many residents, this means more than good schools, decent roads, an attentive local government and nearby medical services. The latest buzzwords, especially from many residents invested in the city’s future, are “walkability,” “waterfront” and “natural beauty.”
These kinds of city offerings are “as essential as having sewer and water hook up,” Richards said.
While the city owns Harbor Park and the public marina, most of the Ellsworth waterfront on Water Street runs behind private businesses, and to create a walking path along the river would mean working with the property owners. The idea has been floated several times over the years.
“When it comes to private land ownership, it becomes a little more difficult,” Richards said, before adding, “The big question is where the money is coming from to fund this.”
Community groups such as Heart of Ellsworth and Green Ellsworth and conservation groups such as Frenchman Bay Conservancy (FBC) often push for and fundraise to support quality-of-life projects. Richards worked with Heart of Ellsworth as the group sought to have Ellsworth join the Maine Downtown Center, a state program that encourages a focus on historic, downtown neighborhoods as a pathway for towns and cities to thrive. Ellsworth was named an affiliate member last March. And Richards also pointed to FBC’s help in approaching landowners about making Ellsworth more walkable through connected trails within the urban area.
But for a large part of 2020, the city’s Economic Development Office was devoted to helping small businesses survive during pandemic-related lockdowns, shutdowns and people just staying home.
“I would say the biggest challenge right now is COVID,” Richards said. “Small businesses have been hit so hard, and that feeling of community and togetherness is so important.”
Ellsworth is also a city of big businesses, centered on High Street and, since 2008, on Myrick Street. But Richards said the big-box store plans for Myrick Street did not end up filling the empty sites because of the economic recession that followed.
“It stinks that nothing is happening,” she said. “These are pre-permitted sites.”
Richards spoke with the Myrick Street developers, WS Development, headquartered in Massachusetts, last October, and remains in contact, she said. “We told [them] things have changed here.” She also met with the brokers and provided them with updated marketing data.
The Myrick Street sites are permitted for large-size, independent-standing stores. But WS Development has started to adjust its model to focus on amenities and service-based development, Richards said.
“Ellsworth is the service center for Downeast Maine, and we feel [Myrick Street] is prime for that kind of development,” she said. “That triangle and section of town is highly desirable because of the amount of traffic. We’ve gotten a lot of interest from lodging, storage, housing and restaurants.”
In the short term, Richards has her eye on projects in the planning stages, such as extending the Ellsworth Pedestrian/Trail path, noting, “There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit in the city and I’d like to get them done.”
Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated Janna Richards’ job history. She previously worked as the planner in Bar Harbor and Orono. Frenchman Bay Conservancy does not have an attorney on staff.