A new learning center with innovation courses in the arts and engineering aims to bring affordable education to rural Maine students.
The center, to be located in the Magic Lantern theater and pub in Bridgton, will include an innovation lab and learning center. The theater will continue to run its three large movie screens and pub, which will help pay for ongoing operations of the education project.
The Maine 4-H Foundation is in the midst of raising $4 million to buy the theater at 9 Depot St. and to create the Magic Lantern Innovation Lab and Learning Center.
The learning programs, to be led by University of Maine Cooperative Extension instructors, are for youth ages 5-18 in the western Maine Lakes Region.
“Young people growing up in rural Maine do not have the same opportunities and resources that other youth have in the urban areas of Maine,” said Susan Jennings, executive director of the Maine 4-H Foundation, which is a development partner with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
“Maine 4-H has been engaged in experiential education pilot school programs for over 10 years and has successfully increased test scores, raised aspirations, increased attendance and engaged students in career-based learning,” she said.
While the new center will include music and theater courses, it will focus on engineering and science, Jennings said.
“This is STEM-based education focused on invention design, engineering with polymers, learning about alternative energy and invasive species,” Jennings said.
Maine 4-H has five other learning centers in the state, but the Magic Lantern location differs in that it will pay for itself using money from theater- and pub-goers to plow back into operations.
Initially students may have to pay a stipend or attend with a grant and small copay, but the goal is to have the center be self-sustaining and to cover tuition.
Jennings said 100 percent of the revenue generated will support this community education.
The theater opened in February 2008 as a community center with state-of-the-art technology, including high-definition projection and sound systems and full stages.
“Our intention has always been to promote entertainment, culture and education,” said Magic Lantern co-owner Frank Howell.
The facility was put up for sale in 2017.
The following year, talks began with the theater’s co-owners, community members and the Maine 4-H Foundation to explore the possibility of the philanthropic and educational venture.
To date, half of the $4 million needed to buy the theater has been pledged by nonprofit foundations including the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation, the Kendal C. and Anna Ham Charitable Foundation, the Maine 4-H Foundation and a major anonymous donor.
Maine 4-H is raising the rest now. Once that is raised, which Jennings said should be within a year, Maine 4-H will be able to buy the theater from the current owners’ company, Snapdragon Associates LLC. The theater will need an upgrade to the screen in the pub area, Jennings said.
The center will focus on cross-discipline learning, creative thinking and problem-solving.
Visual and performing arts programming will include creative writing, playwriting, film production, advertising copywriting, broadcasting and illustration.
For programming focused on math, design and engineering, the center will partner with area businesses, such as Down East Innovation, RLC Engineering, UMaine, the Maine Mathematics and Science Alliance, 4-H STEM Hubs and local schools. All of those currently participate in 4-H youth development programs statewide.
Down East Innovation, located next to the theater, makes products for the military aimed at making soldiers safer, such as an easy release buckle.
“We look forward to engaging with future inventors and engineers at a very young age and helping them understand and be inspired by what is possible,” said Howell, the Magic Lantern co-owner who also is chief designer at Down East.
Maine 4-H also has reached out to nearby Bridgton Academy and Fryeburg Academy to both attract their students to learn or to serve as mentors for younger students.
The center plans to include hands-on enrichment workshops and experiential education programs in area schools.
Jennings said that eventually, the University of Maine could bring some credit-based programs to Bridgton.
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