Portland circus group cuts after-school program to focus on college

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PORTLAND — The Circus Conservatory of America has ended a lease at Thompson’s Point where it led after-school classes in circus arts.

The conservatory’s president said the move will allow the organization to focus on fundraising and state accreditation to grant degrees.

“We’ve been doing an after-school recreational program, and we’ve determined that diluted our mission and our primary focus,” said Peter Nielsen, the conservatory’s president. “We wanted to focus entirely on that, and that’s a decision we reached with our whole board (of directors).”

Nielsen said the lease for a renovated space at Thompson’s Point ended earlier this month, a location where he said none of the staff tasked with building the college work.

The conservatory is still seeking approval from the Maine Board of Education to grant degrees in circus arts (think Cirque du Soleil, not Barnum & Bailey).

Nielsen said that application is still being considered by state education regulators, and he hopes the board will have a recommendation to pass on to the Legislature by the end of December, in time for the next legislative session.

The immediate focus, he said, is fundraising toward a goal of $5 million to launch the operations of the college. The campaign has amassed about $1 million so far, he said.

The next step is fundraising for a new building constructed specifically for the college that would be the first degree-granting circus arts school in the country. Nielsen estimates the building will cost about $25 million, which is a rough goal for the phase of fundraising to come after getting certification.

“We’re focused on degree-granting authority first and then we would use that goal to work on fundraising for the facilities,” he said.

The group also plans to apply for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, he said, that would cover costs for getting full architectural sketches of the building’s interior and overall concept, which could then be used in the facilities fundraising campaign.

He said that the end of the after-school programs serves the larger goal of getting that college up and running. In 2013, Nielsen said he hoped the college would welcome its first class this fall.

“We remain 100 percent committed to building a circus college in Portland, Maine, on Thompson’s Point,” Nielsen said. “That was our first goal, and we have every intention of continuing along the track.”

The more than $100 million development project at Thompson’s Point announced a variety of new and potential tenants this summer.

Circus Conservatory of America Technical Director Joshua Oliver performs an aerial routine for Casco Bay High School Students in Portland.