BUCKSPORT, Maine — Gov. Janet Mills toured the new Maine Maritime Academy education annex on Wednesday, underlining the state’s support of expanding the school’s ability to recruit Mainers who might not otherwise afford to attend the college.
School workers began moving into the former Verso Paper mill site’s training center in January and the first students, about a dozen, began attending classes at the Center for Professional Mariner Development last week, academy President William J. Brennan said.
All of Maine Maritime’s recertification classes for professional mariners will eventually move from the academy’s Castine campus to Bucksport. About 900 people — 400 Maine Maritime students and 500 maritime professionals — are expected to take classes at the center this year, which could be a boost to the town with visitors patronizing restaurants, hotels and other businesses. The number of professional sailors seeking recertification is expected to climb to 2,000 or so in five years, or about 50 merchant mariners a week for 50 weeks a year.
Academy officials intend to use the revenue generated by the new facility to add to its ability to grant scholarships to Mainers and to improve its Castine campus, Brennan said.
In the works since MMA officials announced their intention to come to the former Verso site in October 2018, the new campus’s opening is “huge,” Brennan said.
“For me, this is a transformation that will make a huge difference to the academy and to Bucksport,” Brennan said during Mills’ tour. “The success that this will bring to Bucksport means a lot to me.”
Mills said that Bucksport’s success story began with town officials taking stock of the community’s assets in the wake of the closure of Verso in late 2014, which caused the loss of 570 jobs. The community avoided acrimony and worked well with local businesses and relief agencies in crafting a plan that led to the annex’s opening, Mills said.
“This is a story I would love to hear retold all over the state. We think each community revitalizes itself in different forms,” Mill said during the luncheon that preceded the tour. “This is a success story we would love to see replicated.”
The school announced a tentative purchase-and-sale agreement with mill site owner American Iron and Metal in November 2018. The deal, the price of which MMA has declined to disclose, was consummated in June 2019.
As many as 75 students a month are taking classes at the annex now, and that number will increase, particularly when the firefighter training simulator — a building that mimics shipboard fire conditions — gets built. Construction should start within a few months, Brennan said. An ocean survival center will also be built on the site.
“Our plans are to grow this facility beyond what you can see here now,” Brennan said.
MMA’s opening is the first successful repurposing of the mill site since the mill’s closure, but aquaculture firm Whole Oceans is due to begin construction this spring of what could be New England’s first all-indoor Atlantic salmon farm. Expected to go online in 2022 and then to begin selling fish two years later, the $180 million farm will employ as many as 75 people in its first phase, company officials have said.
Town Manager Susan Lessard and Community and Economic Development Director Richard Rotella said Bucksport’s economy is rebounding well from the mill closure. Rotella counted 14 new businesses that opened downtown since 2012, and said almost all downtown storefronts are full.
The town also is striding toward becoming a center for seafood processing. Four processing plants operate at Buckstown Heritage Industrial Park, with Whole Oceans planning to add a salmon processing plant there after it begins growing fish.
“We are in a constant state of reinvention,” Lessard said. “We are not a community that thinks that government has to be bigger for things to get better. We believe in partnerships that build investment in our community.”
The annex is not finished. Some rooms need final touches, and the parking lot and landscaping remain to be installed.