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Baldacci stumps in South Portland for bond proposals, SMCC campus at Brunswick base

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Baldacci stumps in South Portland for bond proposals, SMCC campus at Brunswick base

SOUTH PORTLAND — Gov. John Baldacci made an appearance at Southern Maine Community College Tuesday to champion a June 8 bond proposal that includes funding to establish a new campus at Brunswick Naval Air Station.

The so-called Maine Advanced Technology and Engineering Center will be a joint venture between SMCC and the University of Maine at the base, which is in the midst of a redevelopment effort in preparation for the U.S. Navy's final departure in May 2011.

Proponents say the MATEC campus will aid the civilian transition of the base because its engineering and technology curriculum can be tailored to the needs of incoming businesses. A skilled workforce at the ready, advocates argue, will double as a business attraction tool.

Start-up funding for the campus is estimated at $4.75 million, part of a $23.75 million economic development bond that voters will be asked to ratify in Question 4 on the June 8 ballot.

The money that would go to SMCC will be used to renovate five buildings the college is receiving through a no-cost property conveyance from the Navy. 

An additional $3.25 million would go to the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority to ready base buildings for private tenants.

SMCC is also slated to receive another $4 million in start-up funding for the base campus. A bill signed by Baldacci last month will redirect 50 percent of state income tax revenue from workers hired at the redeveloped base into a so-called job increment financing fund. Collected revenues would be split between the redevelopment authority and SMCC.

Baldacci and SMCC President James Ortiz touted the benefits of the campus, which they said would give up to 2,000 new students training in nursing, engineering and composites.

Ortiz said the expanded capacity would allow SMCC to reduce its student waiting list, which is about 1,000 students – equal to a three-year wait – for the nursing program alone. Ortiz said enrollment at SMCC has increased from 2,500 students in 2002 to 6,240 students in 2009.

Additionally, proponents said the UMaine partnership will strengthen the state's technical workforce.

Dana Humphrey, the dean of  UMaine's College of Engineering, said the state ranked 49 nationally in producing engineering students. Engineering jobs, he said, are responsible for 70 percent of Maine's exports, and linchpins of its key employers, Bath Iron Works, National Semiconductor and Penobscot Bay Media in Camden.

"The (MATEC) campus will offer students a seamless pathway from an associates degree to a masters degree," Humphrey said.

Baldacci said opportunities in wind power manufacturing, a priority for his administration,  would lean heavily on workers with specific skill sets. The redeveloped base, dubbed Brunswick Landing, is also exploring the feasibility of a renewable energy center which would research, develop and manufacture alternative energy sources.

"If we don't have that workforce here we'll have to import that workforce," Baldacci said.

Tuesday's press conference came amid questions about voters' willingness to support state borrowing as Maine limps through what some believe is the final leg of the recession.

Political scientists have also questioned the voters' understanding of the bond, one of four on a six-question ballot that includes referendums tax reform bill and an act to allow a casino in Oxford County. Additionally, party-enrolled voters will be choosing from several gubernatorial candidates, and in some towns, primary candidates for the state Legislature.

Advocates for the bond benefiting the SMCC campus have also been slow getting the word out. Three Political Action Committees have been established to support of Question 4, but campaign efforts have been relatively low key.

Meanwhile, the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative think tank, has reportedly opposed additional state borrowing. The MHPC has not been specific about which bond questions it's opposing, and no PAC has been created to fight passage of Question 4.

On Tuesday, advocates for Question 4 said the bond was the result of a bipartisan effort in the Legislature. The bonds have also received support from the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, traditionally a conservative leaning entity.

On Tuesday, the chamber's president, Dana Connors, applauded Question 4, saying it represents a marriage between business and education priorities.

"This bond sets us up for the new Maine economy," Connors said. "It's a very promising feature. It unites the issues and it unites the parties."

Steve Mistler can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or smistler@theforecaster.net