Work has begun on renovating a defunct supermarket in Columbia into a high school vocational center for students from western Washington County.
The renovation of the former Columbia Supermarket building at the corner of Route 1 and Addison Road in Columbia is projected to cost $825,000, Ronald Ramsey, superintendent for School Administrative District 37, said Monday. A consortium of school districts that will send students to the center — including SAD 37, the towns of Cherryfield and Machias, Washington Academy and Moosabec Consolidated School District — purchased the building in 2019 for $165,000, he said.
The end result will be a vocational education center for high school students that offers programs in automotive repair, welding and early childhood development that’s expected to be open for the new school year in September.
SAD 37 includes Addison, Columbia, Columbia Falls, Harrington and Milbridge, while Moosabec CSD consists of Beals and Jonesport.
Construction firm Nickerson & O’Day of Brewer was awarded a contract for the renovation project in December, Ramsay said.
The work is being funded by the Maine Department of Education, which last year awarded the districts a grant of up to $2 million to acquire and renovate an existing building for use as a vocational center. After the districts had difficulty coming to agreement on where the facility should be located, however, the state threatened to rescind the grant.
After much deliberation and sometimes heated discussions, the districts chose the Columbia site over the closed Blueberry Ford dealership in Machias.
Work on gutting the supermarket building, which has more than 11,000 square feet of space, began last month, Ramsay said. The interior layout of the building will be reconfigured, wiring will be upgraded, new electrical and plumbing fixtures will be installed, and some additional drains will be built into the concrete floor. New sprinkler, air exchange and heating systems will be put into place. The goal is to have all renovations done by the end of July so school administrators will have time to install equipment and move in furniture by the time school starts in September.
“The project is still on schedule,” Ramsay said.
The roof, he added, was redone a few years ago and is in good shape, as is the overall structure of the building. The building has been vacant for four or five years, he said.
“People have remarked how good the bones are in the building,” he said.
The districts have a $300,000 budget to equip and furnish the building, Ramsay said, which he acknowledged may be slightly low. He said four vehicle lifts that will be used in the diesel and automotive repair program will be paid for through a separate grant.
The $300,000 will pay for tools, diagnostic equipment, welding equipment, and office and classroom furniture, he said. In addition to diesel and traditional automotive repair programs and welding, there also will be an early childhood development program for a total of four programs taught at the vocational center.
The center will be given a formal name, but it has not been selected yet, he said. School administrators involved with the project hope the facility will have a lifespan of a decade or more and that, sometime after that, they will get support from the state to build a brand-new vocational center, perhaps with a larger capacity, somewhere in the area. The cost of building such a facility from scratch likely would have been tens of millions of dollars, officials have said.