Hutchinson Center in Belfast not a trophy traded to the highest bidder

it was meant to be a gift to the people of Waldo County, Belfast and Midcoast
Tue, 01/23/2024 - 1:15pm

Everyone loves a surprise, well at least most surprises. Twenty-three years ago, a welcome surprise to the Belfast and Waldo County community was the creation of the Hutchinson Center, made possible by a clear vision to bring opportunities to the local population for years and hopefully generations to come.

The community enthusiastically supported the Hutchinson Center and substantial private donations, some large and many small allowed for the vision to flourish. Phase One of the Hutchinson Center was followed a few years later by the second phase and in this effort, the community came together and raised additional private funding.

Since its inception, the Hutchinson Center has been a substantial asset in support of educational aspiration on the doorstep --to local businesses, to community groups, to arts organizations and as a meeting place and social hub open to the community and visitors. 

In Summer 2023, the community experienced another surprise: the University of Maine, Orono, abruptly announced the immediate cessation of all educational offerings from the Hutchinson Center and the facility’s closure. Based on immediate feedback from the community, this action was seen as an unwelcome surprise.

Shortly after the closure announcement, a very well-attended meeting in the Belfast Free Library witnessed a substantial cross-section of community members expressing profound concern about the University’s decision and the fact that there had been no community engagement by the University in the preceding weeks or months.

After the library meeting, a group from the community made several attempts to meet with university leadership and a meeting took place in Orono in early October. Both the University and Belfast community teams agreed they would reconvene in approximately six weeks and at that meeting, outline a plan for the future of the center in more detail.

Unfortunately, engagement from the University from October until January 16  has been negligible, merely two acknowledgements, one a receipt of a call and one of several emails.

Seven attempts have been made to follow up with the University team, including direct calls and emails and ultimately a January 15 letter to the President. 

On Jan. 16, in response to the most recent letter addressed directly to the University President, a letter of response was received from the University indicating that contrary to points made at the October meeting, the university was going to issue an RFP (Request for Proposal) instead of re-engaging with representatives of the Midcoast community. This was the latest surprise. On Jan. 17, the RFP was published.

Continuing the mission of the Hutchinson Center is critical and will require the entire community to mobilize. The Midcoast, Belfast, past students, the many donors who gave so generously, businesses, community not-for-profits and those who aspire to continuing to see Waldo County and the Midcoast generally flourish, need to come together and join in the effort to send an unambiguous message to the University: The Hutchinson Center, was, is and should remain a community facility.

Please reach out to the University, your local representatives and Senator Curry, the City of Belfast and all those working to retain the Hutchinson Center. 

When MBNA purchased the land, designed and built and later subsidized the Hutchinson Center, it was meant to be a gift to the people of Waldo County, Belfast and the Midcoast and not as a trophy traded to the highest bidder, following a process that excluded local participation and requires a response by February 5 (19 days!).

The community may respond to the University’s RFP but the University needs to understand the depths of connection this community has to the Hutchinson Center. Apparent focus by the University on addressing fiscal pressures to the exclusion of community input hardly reflects well on the State’s Flagship University and its mission statement, in particular “… Comprehensive outreach, including public service, Cooperative Extension, continuing education …”. 

Shane G. Flynn lives in Camden