BEALS, Maine — Having secured about $5 million in funding for the project, the University of Maine System announced Friday that it is moving ahead with a major expansion of a local applied marine research and education facility.
Work on adding 8,500 square feet of added laboratory space, along with mechanical, electrical and plumbing upgrades, is expected to get underway this summer, Dianne Tilton, executive director of Downeast Institute, said Thursday.
The project also will include short-term housing for visiting scientists and students, a small visitors center and office space.
Tilton said that the project will allow more researchers to pursue projects in the cold, pristine waters in the eastern Gulf of Maine. It also will increase opportunities for University of Maine at Machias students and others in the state university system to get practical research experience as they pursue their degrees.
“I see us as becoming a bigger part of the competitive advantage the University of Maine System has to offer,” Tilton said. “We have [marine] conditions researchers can’t find anywhere else, [and] we have a world-class research facility in our own backyard.”
The funds for the expansion were secured over the past few years.
In 2014, the institute was awarded a $2 million grant from the Blue Hill-based Next Generation Foundation. That was matched that same year with $2 million in state funds that were raised as part of a $7 million bond approved by Maine voters.
In addition, Downeast Institute has received about $900,000 in support of the project in grants and research funding from the Maine Economic Improvement Fund, which is administered by the university system.
Downeast Institute functions as the marine field research station for UMaine at Machias. Founded in 1987 by UMaine at Machias professor Brian Beal, in collaboration with area towns and clam harvesters, Downeast Institute started out as a softshell clam hatchery but has expanded its scope over the years to include research at various time on other clam species, European oysters, mussels, scallops and lobster. The institute also produces algae as a food source for its study subjects and has studied ways to limit the effects of green crabs, an invasive species that eats softshell clams.
In 2003, the institute moved from Perio Point on Beals Island to its current location in a former live lobster storage facility on neighboring Great Wass Island.
The institute also serves as an educational resource for students from kindergarten through 12th grade and runs marine education summer camps for K-12 students. A 700-square-foot classroom was added onto the building in 2010.
Tilton said the construction work will start after the summer camp sessions come to an end, likely in July. She said the project is expected to last two years, as it will have to be sequenced so it does not interfere with the hatchery’s production schedule.