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SMCC composites school faces uncertain future in Brunswick

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SMCC composites school faces uncertain future in Brunswick

BRUNSWICK — The Advanced Technology Center, touted as a feeder program for the area's composites cluster, may have to suspend classes next year if Southern Maine Community College is unable to extend its lease with the town.

SMCC President James Ortiz cautioned that suspending classes is a worst-case scenario. However, uncertainties surrounding the school's base on Industry Road, and its future location at Brunswick Naval Air Station, make the prospect a possibility. 

SMCC's three-year lease with the town expires Dec. 31. While the college previously expressed interest in purchasing the Industry Road building, Ortiz said SMCC has no funds for the purchase.

Now, he said, the college is hoping to receive $4.75 million that was proposed in Gov. John Baldacci's $306 million bond package. The money will go toward establishing SMCC's proposed campus at Brunswick Naval Air Station. The Advanced Technology Center, Ortiz said, would be included in the new campus. 

Although SMCC appears to be winning support from state lawmakers for its BNAS campus, its unclear how long, and for how much, the town will allow it to remain on Industry Road.

SMCC currently uses a grant from the federal Department of Labor to pay its rent. Ortiz said Tuesday that the funding will dry up soon after the lease expires.

He said SMCC hopes to extend the grant, and the lease, until the composites school can move to BNAS sometime in 2010.

However, the town may have other plans for the Industry Road building. 

Last week, the Town Council formed a subcommittee to examine possibly moving the Brunswick Police Department to Industry Road. Also, the town's Capital Improvement Program includes $6.65 million for a new police station in fiscal year 2010-2011.

Moving the police from Federal Street to Industry Road was the impetus for town's purchasing the Industry Road building from the Times Record in 2004. But the police station proposal ultimately proved too costly, and the town has since spent nearly $1 million renovating the building.

The lease agreement with SMCC also comes at a cost to taxpayers. Last year, after the Town Council voted to sell the building, Finance Director John Eldridge said the SMCC lease costs the town about $17,000 annually.

Extending the SMCC lease would require Town Council approval – by no means a sure thing, since some outspoken residents consider the building a symbol of irresponsible spending.

Converting the building into a police station would incur more costs, but doing so could be more palatable to councilors because of the department's existing working conditions and residents' general willingness to support increases in public safety budgets.

"I think the council is acknowledging that the Police Department has long been neglected," acting Town Manager Gary Brown said Tuesday. 

Brown said the town would pursue "a more modest" police station proposal than it did in 2004.

Brown acknowledged that moving the police to Industry Road could cause problems for SMCC.

Ortiz said he planned to contact Brown about the college's future. 

"We'll try to get money from the (existing grant) to extend the lease," Ortiz said. "If the town needs the building right away, we might not run classes over the summer and we'll have to store the equipment at the base."

In 2007, SMCC won a no-cost, public benefit conveyance from the U.S. Navy for four buildings at BNAS. The buildings need to be renovated and converted, which is why the college is hoping the $4.75 million will survive the state Legislature's parsing of Baldacci's bond proposal. 

It's also unclear when the Navy will allow SMCC to move into the buildings. Ortiz said the college hopes to move in the summer of 2010. 

That would leave at least a six-month hiatus after SMCC's lease with the town expires.

"It's a very nice partnership with the town," Ortiz said. "We're hopeful we can come to some kind of extension."

Ortiz added that the college expected uncertainties in the Brunswick venture.

"We knew from the beginning ... we'd have a lot of complex issues," he said. "The important thing to remember is that the endpoint will guide us through those issues."

Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext.123 or smistler@theforecaster.net

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