Thomas College plans major expansion plan in Waterville

Posted Jan. 20, 2011, at 5 a.m.
Last modified Feb. 02, 2011, at 12:21 p.m.

WATERVILLE, Maine – Thomas College on Tuesday unveiled ambitious plans to construct a dozen new buildings, including five new residence halls and a new library anchored in the heart of campus, plus a near-doubling of the campus to include new athletic fields.

The broad-brush vision of the campus expansion, which could take many years to be realized, was unveiled at a public forum in the Ayotte Auditorium. Students, teachers and staff were shown renderings of expansion proposals and given the chance to ask questions of the project planners.

Faced with growing student enrollment and a need for more building space, the small liberal arts college is aiming to eventually transform the campus while maintaining its intimate feeling.

Founded in 1894, Thomas College describes itself as a “career-oriented” college that prepares undergraduates for jobs in business, technology and education.

Steve Cecil, president of the Boston-based Cecil Group, which is assisting with the master plan, told forum attendees that the proposals are “flexible” and will be revisited over time. Cecil said planners would consider input from students and others as projects move forward.

“The plan is not complete by any means,” Cecil said. “It’s an open book exam all the way through and this is just one chapter of it.”

Also presenting the master plan on Tuesday were Robert Klinedinst, a principal, and Mark Lee, an architect, both from the Auburn firm Harriman Architects and Engineers, which partnered with the Cecil Group.

Some aspects of the master plan are already under way. Last summer, the college spent about $250,000 to renovate its welcome center and the first floor of classrooms in the main academic building, according to Beth Gibbs, the college’s senior vice president and chief financial officer.

Gibbs said there are no price tags yet attached to future projects, which will be financed through a combination of fundraising, tax-exempt bonds and college surplus money.

Under the plan, a laundry list of projects is broken down into four stages that would each be triggered by increases in full-time enrollment.

The first stage includes building a new library and classrooms, a new residence facility and locker room addition, and renovations and expansions to the dining facilities and student center. The second stage calls for another new residence facility and new athletic fields.

Later on, the remaining two stages include more new residence facilities, a new building for academic programming, a new indoor athletic field house, a new physical plant, football field with a track and seating, and a new riverside trail and kayak facility.

This past fall, there were about 705 full-time students taking day classes, of which about 65 percent live on campus, according to Gibbs. In total, Thomas serves about 1,000 students through day classes and part-time evening courses.

Each project stage outlined in the master plan will be triggered by increases in full-time students taking day classes. The four thresholds are 700-800 students; 800-1,000 students; 1,000-1,2000 students; and, finally, 1,200 to 1,400 students.

In other words, Thomas College’s full-time enrollment will need to double for the master plan vision to be complete.

Cecil, Klinedinst and Lee told the audience at Tuesday’s forum that the proposals — although some are grand and ambitious — aim to maintain Thomas College’s identity as a campus with a “small and friendly environment.”

Lee said that planners solicited feedback from the Thomas community, including students, who said they’d like to see more informal gathering areas that have been termed “landing spots.”

Cecil said that concept has guided much of the design for campus improvements, as new buildings are intended to have welcoming front entrances and open grassy spaces outside them, connected by walking paths. The idea is to take advantage of the college’s “spectacular setting,” he said.

Trees would be planted along West River Road so much of the college is shielded from view. Combined with a new main entrance moved a little south of the current one, drivers would enter campus and prominently see new common area surrounded by new academic buildings and a library, Cecil said. The main road, Campus Ring Road, would loop around the heart of campus and return to West River Road.

The four new residential buildings would be constructed in the rear side of campus, near where the college property meets the Kennebec River and Messalonskee Stream. Parking spaces would be switched around, so they’re distributed more evenly in smaller lots throughout campus in key locations. Now, much of the parking is congregated in large lots on the north end of campus.

“Today, you have a drive-through campus,” Cecil said. “What makes for a more mature look is green, common open spaces. … The main entrance, I think, is going to be really, really nice in the future.”

Perhaps the most dramatic change in the master plan is an overhaul of its athletic fields and buildings. The current Alfond Athletic Center is “bursting at the seams,” Cecil said.

On the east side of West River Road, at the intersection with Webb Road, the plan calls for a football field surrounded by a track, as well as a field house and stadium seating. Thomas College does not currently have a football team.

On the west side of West River Road, south of the main campus, is about 50 acres of undeveloped land that the college purchased five years ago. The usable size of campus is now about 70 acres.

Under the plan, the undeveloped land, which includes a handful of residences, are slated for athletic fields for multiple sports, parking lots, a field house, and a riverside kayak facility that hooks up with new trails at the water’s edge.

Following the forum, audience member Jim Delorie, director of recreation and intramurals for the college, said he liked the overall scope of the master plan.

“It puts us in a positive light, while keeping the small school feel,” he said.

The master plan is next scheduled to be presented to the college’s Board of Trustees on Jan. 28.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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