ELLSWORTH — City and state officials gathered with representatives from The Jackson Laboratory on Aug. 23 to celebrate the opening of what its operators say is the most advanced mouse-production facility in the world.
The facility has been named in honor of Charles E. Hewett, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the lab, who will retire at the end of the year. Katy Longley was promoted to Hewett’s former position beginning in July. Longley was previously the lab’s vice president and chief financial officer.
The lab is a world leader in the production of thousands of strains of genetically engineered mice. The animals make excellent research subjects because they are biologically similar to humans and vulnerable to human diseases. They are also easy to house, breed quickly and have accelerated life spans (one mouse year equals around 30 human years), allowing scientists to study an entire life cycle within two or three years.
Distributed in over 60 countries around the globe, Jackson Lab mice are used for research into diseases ranging from epilepsy to Alzheimer’s. Eventually, all mouse production will move to the Ellsworth facility, freeing up space in the Bar Harbor facility for research and education, Hewett said.
The Aug. 23 ceremony took place before a crowd of several hundred well-wishers seated under a tent in the parking lot of the former Lowe’s.
The event marked the opening of the first of five phases. Hewett told the audience the organization plans to spend around $150 million implementing the first two phases.
“Nowhere in the world is more known about the research mouse,” said Hewett, “than within a 50-mile radius of Bar Harbor.”
Governor Paul LePage was on hand to address the crowd, hailing the facility as “an example of a public-private partnership,” with “the federal government, the state government, the local community and Jackson Lab working together over multiple years to get this project done.”
“When we are advocating and trying to attract companies to Maine Jackson Lab is always in the conversation,” LePage said, adding, “We can be a world leader in this venue, in this industry.”
Page said the organization generates around $14 million in state and local tax revenue each year, adding, “I’ve tried to put it to good use.”
LePage congratulated Hewett, saying he was “very proud” and joking: “You know you’ve made it when a building is named after you, as long as it’s not a prison. So you’ve made it big.”
U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin (R-Maine) also praised the public-private nature of the partnership.
“Government cannot do everything,” said Poliquin, but “when it comes to public health it is critically important that government is involved.”
Representatives from U.S. Sens. Angus King (I-Maine) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) read letters of congratulations. Both praised Hewett and the organization’s contributions to worldwide research over the years.
Carol Woodcock read a letter from Collins, who wrote:
“The work being done with JAX mice has led to invaluable advances in medicine and genetics research. It’s incredibly exciting to consider what might be achieved with the additional production capacity made possible by this new facility.”
“We all should be proud to know that this vivarium will house mice in a humane and safe environment to be sent from Ellsworth around the world to provide researchers with the tools that they need to make discoveries that will improve all of our lives,” said Chris Rector, a representative from King’s office. “The research enabled by this center will be a cornerstone of worldwide research, and it all starts here in Ellsworth, Maine.”
City Council Chairman Marc Blanchette said the opening of the facility represents “the largest commercial investment in the history of the city of Ellsworth” and noted its ripple effects, such as the construction of the Oriole Way townhomes on Washington Street.
The build-out for the rest of the facility will take place “as the market demands and as resources become available,” Hewett said during a tour before the event.
“The new Charles E. Hewett Center positions The Jackson Laboratory to create 350 full-time, high-quality jobs in Ellsworth and 135 new jobs in Bar Harbor, following the five- to 10-year build-out,” according to a press release, and generate $554 million in economic activity between 2018 and 2026.
There were between 20 and 25 employees working in the Ellsworth facility as of Aug. 23, with around 70 expected to be in the space at the end of the first year.
According to the release, the lab employs over 1,500 people in Maine hailing from 13 counties, with average annual pay and benefits of $64,000 (compared to the state’s average wage of $26,000). The company paid $115 million in wages and benefits to employees in Maine in 2017.
As of 2017, 290 lab employees resided in Ellsworth, according to the release. Hewett said the shift of production and employees to Ellsworth should help reduce traffic coming on and off the island in the coming years.
The nonprofit purchased the 140,000-square-foot Lowe’s building for $3.2 million in 2012 and started on its rehabilitation in 2016.
The organization is one of the largest tax-exempt organizations in the city. It did not seek tax-exempt status on the property in 2017, instead paying $142,500 in property taxes on the space (full taxes on the property’s $7.9 million valuation at last year’s rate).
In Bar Harbor, the lab makes a “voluntary contribution to the municipal budget” each year, similar to a payment in lieu of taxes. In 2017, the organization gave $91,165 to the town, around 3.6 percent of the $2.5 million it would have paid if taxes had been levied in full on its $230.1 million of property.
LuAnn Ballesteros, the lab’s vice president of external and government affairs, said the organization had not yet determined what contribution it might make in Ellsworth.
The lab brought in total revenue of $304.3 million in 2016, according to federal tax filings, with a net income of $30.5 million after expenses, up from $22.8 million the year before.
The bulk of the money (around 70 percent) came from “program service revenue.” Hewett, along with President and CEO Edison Liu, were the organization’s highest paid employees in 2016, reporting $1,039,273 and $672,159 in compensation respectively.
On Thursday, the mice were the unseen stars of the show. They have been the research subjects for 26 Nobel Prizes over the past decades, said Hewett, helping contribute to discoveries in fields ranging from cancer research to immunology, aging and others.
“The hope for this facility is that the 25,000 researchers around the world who use our mice day-in and day-out in 75 different countries will leverage the work that JAX has done to create cures for the world’s most difficult and challenging diseases,” Hewett said during the tour.
Hewett said the facility is designed not to protect the people from the mice, but rather “to protect the mice from the people.”
“This facility is designed to make it almost impossible for a mouse to get a human pathogen,” Hewett said. “Our mice are really, really special.”
In his remarks on Thursday, Poliquin said it was time mice became part of the Maine brand.
“The Maine brand means something,” he said. “It means hard work, it means honesty. It means homegrown.
“When you think of Maine you think of lobster and moose, whoopie pie and Moxie. Don’t you think it’s about time we start thinking about mice?”