September 25, 2018
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University of Southern Maine faces stiff funding competition for $65M arts hub

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
FIle photo of a woman walking across the University of Southern Maine Portland campus.
By Nick McCrea, BDN Staff
Updated:

The University of Southern Maine wants to build a $65 million arts hub in Portland, but likely will have to find a lot of outside support and prove it to be a worthwhile endeavor before putting shovels in the ground.

The University of Maine System Board of Trustees meets Monday, and is expected to approve spending up to $1 million of USM Foundation money to start the design and planning process to identify possible locations, determine what the arts center could look like, and figure out whether it would be feasible.

USM has a lofty vision for what it would like to see for its Center for the Arts. Early concepts call for a 1,000-seat concert hall, 250-seat recital hall, a “black box theater,” art galleries, rehearsal spaces, studios, lobby area and cafe.

“The Portland location will place USM at the heart of the region’s thriving arts and cultural community, expose USM talent to larger audiences, and enhance the university’s value within the area’s growing creative economy,” the school states in its pitch in the board’s agenda materials. “It’s time to build a Center for the Arts that matches the caliber of our students and the excellence of our programs — a dream that has been over 30 years in the making.”

The university estimates it would need to raise $60 million to $70 million to complete the project and set up a reserve account to cover early operations. Ultimately, USM wants to establish a business plan to make the venue “self-sustaining” by renting space to other groups in southern Maine.

The exact location, cost, design and plan for the proposed center won’t be known until the design phase concludes. University system trustees then will have to determine whether to back the project or where to prioriize it.

USM and the rest of the university system will be weighing other major infrastructure projects in coming years, and could have to forgo or delay some to focus on others.

At its meeting in November, the board approved spending up to $1 million to design and plan a Engineering Education and Design Center at the flagship campus in Orono. Early estimates indicate that project could cost up to $80 million. It’s also likely to be a priority for trustees, as the university tries to fill a growing workforce need in engineering fields.

USM also hopes to build a home for the Maine Center for Graduate and Professional Studies once that project hits its next stage in a couple of years.

The university system will be asking voters to approve a $75 million workforce development bond request to push forward other projects. That money would be split among all seven campuses, for a variety of renovation and demolition projects, with the largest share going to UMaine.

While considering new construction projects, trustees are simultaneously trying to rein in the system’s physical footprint by demolishing or selling outdated structures. Notably, a pair of 1970s-era dorms, Dikey and Wood, on USM’s Gorham campus are slated for destruction because renovating them was deemed too costly. The dorms have been vacant since 2014.

Sightlines, a facilities consulting firm that works with higher education institutions across the country, found that the university system has too much floor space for a system of its size, and much of that space was aging and in dire need of renovation, sale or demolition. The firm has been monitoring the system’s shrinking progress, and is expected to have its next report ready in March.

Also at Monday’s meeting, the board is expected to get a primer on changes to a controversial proposed policy to restrict university employees’ political activities and consider a new faculty union contract. A full agenda is available on the system’s website.

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.

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Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the $75 million workforce bond would go in part toward the UMaine engineering center. That bond will go toward other infrastructure projects, but the engineering center will be financed separately.


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