Sharing the vision of a vibrant future for the Hutchinson Center

Wed, 02/07/2024 - 10:45am

Nearly two decades ago, the Frederick Hutchinson Center (FHC) in Belfast was generously gifted to the University of Maine by the Bank of America following its purchase of the building from MBNA and UMaine’s six years of programming there.

It has served the community well, thanks to student enrollment, many generous donors and more than $14 million invested directly by the university into its infrastructure.

But times change. Before the pandemic, more than 300 students took courses each year, well below the peak enrollment of 1,500 served a decade ago. Since 2020, there have been no UMaine students enrolled there.

The rapid expansion of broadband and new forms of teaching and learning – including through Zoom and asynchronous online classes – provide flexibility and options today’s busy learners expect, including students once served in-person at the FHC. Online education today accounts for more than one-fifth of all credit hours earned by UMaine students. Additionally, use of FHC’s conference facilities, long underutilized, did not rebound to pre-pandemic levels, despite the university’s best efforts to generate bookings as many large meetings and events have moved online too.

Given the sharp decline in utilization and competing educational demands, it is no longer feasible for our public institution to sustain this 32,477-square-foot facility and related staffing and continue making payments toward the $985,000 the university currently owes for the 13,841-square-foot expansion undertaken largely at our expense and completed in 2009.

In addition to the costs of that construction, since 2006 the university has invested $8.29 million in Hutchinson Center building maintenance and $2.9 million in renovations over and above the philanthropic gifts received to support FHC.

Faced with a nearly empty building requiring costly heat and upkeep and budget challenges driven by enrollment declines, UMaine, as responsible stewards of public funds, had to act. And they were compelled to do so by a directive from the University of Maine System (UMS) Board of Trustees, included in the System’s Strategic Plan, that required a careful assessment of the viability of underused facilities and action to address them.

In developing its plan for FHC, university officials did meet with legislators, local officials and representatives of community groups in Belfast.

In the fall of 2023, concerned community members also met in Orono with President Ferrini-Mundy and her team. A public request for proposals (RFP) followed, uniquely structured to seek not just offers to buy but also to lease or offer other creative solutions and noting that the most responsive proposal may not be the highest bidder.

As well-intentioned as that RFP was, the public response made clear that efforts to engage the community fell short. For this, we apologize. And we are taking action. The deadline to respond to the RFP has been extended nearly two months to March 29. A bidders’ conference will respond to questions and promote transparency.

UMaine —like public universities across the country — faces budget challenges that must be addressed to maintain our commitment to affordable tuitions and high-quality education. Simply gifting the facility to another group, then, is not possible given the outstanding debt service and our responsibility as a public institution to a competitive public process.

During public comment at our last Board of Trustees meeting, members of the community made thoughtful comments. We thank them for their partnership and share their vision for a vibrant future for FHC. UMaine is no longer the right steward for this property but the Board supports their plan to make a transition through a public process that ensures the best ideas for Belfast come forward.

Please know that the University of Maine System remains committed to Waldo County. Well beyond online education, UMaine retains a Cooperative Extension office in Belfast, has research and innovation partnerships with many local businesses, and provides access to education and leadership development for local youth through the Tanglewood 4-H Camp and Learning Center in Lincolnville. In the fall of 2023, 434 students from Waldo County – including 93 from Belfast — enrolled in Maine’s public universities while 177 high schoolers from Waldo County benefited from free UMS early college courses.

We regret that our communication and engagement regarding the decision to transition the Hutchinson Center did not meet expectations. But we need to move forward together to build the education our students and communities demand within the resources those students and Maine taxpayers can afford. And we are hopeful that the process underway will yield a proposal that meets both the university’s budget and the community’s needs.

Trish Riley is Chair of the University of Maine System Board of Trustees