Will submit proposal to UMaine

Belfast citizen committee proposes retaining Hutchinson Center as a community, educational, cultural resource

Thu, 01/18/2024 - 11:15pm

    BELFAST — A committee of citizens with longtime ties to the Hutchinson Center, an educational campus in Belfast built with philanthropic dollars, hopes to convince the University of Maine to pass ownership to a new nonprofit that will keep it open.

    “We are hoping to work together in some way so that the property can be transferred to a community organization that will manage it in the manner in which it was intended to provide education, cultural and community events,” said Belfast resident Judy Stein, speaking on behalf of the Committee for the Future of the Hutchinson Center.

    That committee formed last August after the University of Maine Board of Trustees decided to close the Hutchinson Center. 

    The “Hutch”, as it is sometimes affectionately called, was named after University of Maine President Emeritus Frederick E. Hutchinson.

    It was built almost 25 years ago, with financial backing from MBNA bank and its president, Charles Cawley. Its mission: To broaden access to UMaine academic and non-degree programs and services, lifelong learning opportunities, and professional and career development experiences, as had been stated on its website.

    In June 2023, however, UMaine announced that programming would cease Aug. 5. The university had cited cost-cutting measures as the reason for closing the Belfast learning center.

    Upon that news, a volunteer committee of Midcoast residents swiftly formed with a goal to keep the Center operating according to its mission.

    That committee includes Stein, who had co-chaired a fundraising committee in 2006 with then Hutchinson Center Director Jim Patterson to raise $4 million for the new wing, had also served as the first community member on the Hutchinson Center’s Advisory Board, as well as former MBNA Vice President Shane Flynn, former Belfast City Councilors Mike Hurley and Larry Theye, Waterfall Arts Executive Director Kim Fleming, Belfast Planning Board member Hugh Townsend, and others. They got to work, researching and evaluating the property. They met in October with UMaine officials, and want to do so again.

    Last fall, the committee held an open community meeting that attracted close to 100 participants, who spoke about the importance of the Center to Midcoast Maine. 

    Since then, the committee has estimated operations and maintenance costs, met with potential users and researched potential not-for-profit business structures. It has met with the Belfast City Council in early December and received its support.

    In a news release, Eric Sanders, Mayor of Belfast, said: “The Hutchinson Center is one of the great advantages of Belfast. The work of this committee is critical.” 

    UMaine circulated a request for proposals for the property earlier this week. (Read: UMaine issues a request for proposals for its Belfast Hutchinson Center property). The RFP described the property, with its a 16,675-square-foot facility constructed in 2000 and a 13,841-square-foot wing built in 2007. The property has been appraised at  $2.52 million. The university currently holds a bond for the construction of the additional wing with a balance of approximately $1 million, UMaine said.

    The RFP includes options for sale, lease or other creative solutions. The response deadline for the initial proposal opening is Feb. 5, 2024 on or before 2 p.m. EST. 

    The Committee for the Future of the Hutchinson Center intends to submit a proposal, said Stein.

    “We would like to work with Orono with reach a solution that works for the university — they don’t want to continue to manage the facility — and we’d like to make it work it for them and the community,” she said. “We think we can do so.”

    Stein said, “it is a difficult problem in many ways for the university and the community.”

    The Midcoast regarded the Hutchinson Center as a gift from MBNA to the community.

    “Originally built by MBNA to bring opportunities for higher education to the Midcoast, the Center was paid for and subsidized by MBNA until it became fiscally solvent early in its third year,” the committee said.

    The cost of the new wing was estimated at $4 million and the community raised half of that in 2006-2007, said Stein, while the bank floated a bond for the other half. 

    Those were heady fundraising days in Belfast, with multiple institutional projects underway.

    “This facility opened on the heels of doubling the size of the library, building the Y and increasing the size of the hospital in Belfast,” said Stein. “This community absolutely opened its purses. It was an outpouring.”

    Citizens were reaching deep into their pockets to help.

    “When people gave to support the Hutchinson Center they were really digging,” she said. “They had already just given to Y, library and hospital. There is very much a feeling in the community to have contributed to this building.”

    It is the intent of the Committee to establish a 501(c)3 to manage the facility and rent spaces for long-term and short-term use to organizations that will provide programs that meet the community’s goals.

    “This is a model that works well in other communities around the country,” the committee said, in its Jan. 19 news release.

    “The Hutchinson Center was financially successful in its early years and we have every reason to believe that with enthusiastic and active management it can be so again,” said Stein, in the release. “We want the community to know we are working hard to acquire the facility.”

    It is the committee’s belief that the Center can be up and running again by the fall if the transition can be take place this spring.

    Reach Editorial Director Lynda Clancy at lyndaclancy@penbaypilot.com; 207-706-6657