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South Portland, college hope to mend Fort Preble, relationship

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South Portland, college hope to mend Fort Preble, relationship

SOUTH PORTLAND — A group of history buffs from the public and private sectors have been brought together to figure out a way to preserve 200-year-old Fort Preble.

The group not only serves a practical purpose, but also a symbolic one, since Southern Maine Community College and city officials are hoping to improve their sometimes-strained relationship.

Mayor Tom Blake and SMCC President James Ortiz recently assembled the Fort Preble Preservation Committee, a 16-member panel consisting of eight appointees each by the city and the college. The group plans to met the second Wednesday of each month at SMCC's McKernan Hospitality Center. 

"We need to develop a long-term, perpetual plan for maintenance," Blake said. "Right now, we have no plan and that's why (the fort is) deteriorating. Basically, it hasn't had any maintenance in decades."

A backgrounder provided to the committee states that Fort Preble was built in 1808 and was the state's largest federal fort until Fort Gorges and Fort Knox were built. It was named after Edward Preble, a Portland resident who was known as the "Father of the American Navy." The fort was actively used to protect Portland Harbor during five wars: the War of 1812, Civil War, Spanish-American War, World War I and World War II.  

Ortiz said the college intended to invest some money into fort repairs, but had to turn its attention to its academic facilities. The fort, however, is considered integral to the campus, he said, because several college buildings have historic significance and the college constantly looks to incorporate historical design elements into new building designs.

"Overall, we have tried to keep the fort look when making the campus," Ortiz said. 

After one meeting the group has a list of 11 short-term and six long-term projects, assembled by committee member Joel Eastman, a history professor at the University of Southern Maine, and Kenneth Thompson, a historian and author.

Short-term projects are mostly maintenance-related, including trimming the brush and grass around the batteries, repairing cement and painting doors and gates. But the group would also like to install some signs to help visitors understand the fort's place in history. 

Long-term projects include installing replica gun mounts in the batteries, rebuilding the iron staircases at the rear of Battery Rivardi, installing new metal doors on the old gun powder storage rooms that can be opened to public tours and creating a 15-inch Rodman cannon on the south battery. 

The long-term projects, however, will require significant fundraising. Blake said establishing a fundraising committee will be one of the first priorities for the group. Ultimately, Blake said, he would like to see a friends group created, too.

Before any of the long-term projects can be undertaken, Ortiz said the group also has a significant archaeological challenge. 

"We have to see if we can find the original fort," he said, noting the structure has undergone significant changes over the years. "We just have to be careful with what we do."

While the committee has a practical purpose, the group also symbolizes what Blake hopes will be a new era of cooperation between the college and the city. The City Council will be holding a dinner meeting with SMCC officials in the coming weeks. 

"There have been some minor issues in the past that have presented a positive marriage," said Blake, who has taught at SMCC since 1985. "We should have a better relationship with them, and we don't."

SMCC, like many community colleges, has experienced rapid growth in recent years. Nearby residents have complained about college students and private events on campus disrupting their neighborhood. Residents also blame the college for traffic problems on Broadway and for reckless drivers cutting through residential streets to get to campus. 

More recently, the city required SMCC to form a neighborhood advisory committee to meet with residents while SMCC's new 325-student dorm was being built. To further ease concerns, the college also agreed to pay a South Portland police officer to patrol the campus. That agreement, however, has been dissolved. 

While noting SMCC and the city have generally had a good relationship, Ortiz said it is important to maintain an open line of communication with the city, rather than only discussing areas of concern.

"Our home is here," Ortiz said. "We want to continue working together so when something comes up it's not that we only get to speak when there's a problem. If we have a continued conversation we can really take care of any concerns that come up from either side." 

Blake said the City Council's dinner meeting with Ortiz and other college leaders is planned for 6 p.m. on May 20 at SMCC's Culinary Arts Center. 

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net