From Military Base to College Campus

By Maura King Scully

Southern Maine Community College opened a new campus on a decommissioned naval base to help meet local workforce training needs.

In the early and mid-2000s, Southern Maine Community College’s (SMCC) enrollment was growing quickly, but the college, which sits on a peninsula in South Portland, had no land for expansion.

Meanwhile, the town of Brunswick, about 45 minutes northeast of Portland, was about to experience the potentially devastating loss of 7,000 jobs with the closing of the local naval air station. What could have been a calamity for that community turned out to be an opportunity for SMCC to expand its reach and for the midcoast area of Maine to gain access to education opportunities.

“This was a region of the state of Maine not served by any other institution of higher education,” says SMCC President Ron Cantor. “We wanted to serve both the students and the business community of the Brunswick area. The former base gave us a natural setup for a college campus, so it was relatively easy — but not cheap — to convert.”

In 2011, SMCC opened its Midcoast Campus in five buildings in the center of a 3,200-acre property that formerly part of the naval base, which was renamed Brunswick Landing. The site also serves as a business campus, which houses more than 90 companies and their 950 employees.

The first year, the Midcoast Campus had 79 students and “a few borrowed faculty,” Cantor says. Today, there are nearly 600 students enrolled in degree-granting programs.

Training for local workforce needs

Part of the mission at SMCC’s Midcoast Campus is to serve the business community by offering training programs. Brunswick Landing bills itself as “Maine’s Center for Innovation,” attracting companies from a range of industries, including renewable energy, aviation, composites, information technology and tourism.

“Economic development is the tool for job creation within the confines of Brunswick Landing,” explains Jim Whitten, dean of the Midcoast Campus. “We’ve trained more than 400 people who work for local businesses. We offer both traditional workforce training and customized coursework, everything from leadership and management to how to work with composites [laminates, fiberglass and other fabrication materials].”

As demand continues to grow, SMCC has moved forward with major campus improvements and renovations. Last fall, the Midcoast Campus opened its first apartment-style dorm, which currently houses 40 students and will grow over the next two years to accommodate up to 120 students.

“There’s a unique flavor to onsite living” Whitten says. “In the long term, I would love to see some of the housing become available to the local workforce.”

The college also recently unveiled the new L.L.Bean Learning Commons, a $4.5 million renovation supported by $500,000 from L.L.Bean, through the Foundation for Maine’s Community Colleges, as well as a $200,000 contribution toward landscaping.

The state-of-the-art building is a one-stop academic- and student-support center that includes classrooms and laboratories for students in the college’s nursing and health sciences programs. The building also houses advising offices, as well as quiet study rooms, a library and a cafe.

“The building was a former medical and dental clinic for the Navy,” Cantor says. “We gutted it and turned it into the hub of the campus, thanks to the generosity of L.L.Bean and the Gorman family [founders of L.L.Bean].”

Moving forward, SMCC plans to ultimately serve 2,000 students at its Midcoast Campus.

“We’re still in our growth mode,” Cantor says. “This campus has a unique mission to expand economic development and opportunity. The base is flourishing and we’re going to continue to grow, serving students and businesses by providing more than 40 degree programs and vital workforce training and research capabilities for the Brunswick area.”

Maura King Scully

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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