PORTLAND – A founder and future president of a circus conservatory planned for a building at Thompson’s Point said the nonprofit chose Portland because of its creativity and entrepreneurship.
“It’s the best place for it in the world,” said Peter Nielsen, a founding officer and president of the nonprofit Circus Conservatory of America, a fledgling nonprofit that hopes to open a college-level circus school in 2015.
Nielsen said the 120-student conservatory would offer bachelor of fine arts degrees in circus arts, which means they will be subject to the same general education requirements as other college students.
He said the nonprofit is in the process of being accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, the nation’s oldest accreditation institution. That effort, which requires several rigorous steps, is still in the early stages.
The conservatory would be housed in a historic, 33,000-square-foot brick building on the 28-acre former industrial site adjacent to the Fore River near Interstate 295 and the Portland Transportation Center.
Nielsen has declined to discuss some details of the program, including startup costs, funding sources, number of faculty and whether students would live on campus.
Degree programs in circus arts exist in other countries, such as Canada, but Nielsen, city officials and the developer of Thompson’s Point touted the school as the first degree-granting institution of its kind in the U.S.
“I can’t tell you how happy I am — and how excited I am — to be here to announce the formation of the country’s first circus conservatory in the United States here in Portland, Maine, on Thompson’s Point,” Mayor Michael Brennan said at news conference Thursday.
There are many circus training programs in the United States, most of them weekend or weeklong training workshops for children.
The announcement marks the first new tenant for the $100 million Forefront at Thompson’s Point development since it was first rolled out in 2011 with the promise of the Maine Red Claws playing their home basketball games at an arena also proposed for the site.
The proposed conservatory reflects the evolution of the circus business, which now supports youth camps and training schools around the country and the world.
Over the past 25 years, contemporary circus performances have become popular in Europe, Canada and, more recently, the United States. Performances rely on theatrical, acrobatic and artistic elements, rather than old-fashioned clown acts and animals doing tricks.
High-flying, gravity-defying outfits such as Cirque du Soleil and Circus Smirkus have helped fuel interest in contemporary circus in the United States.
Developer Chris Thompson of Forefront Partners said he was excited to welcome the circus conservatory. Often developers think only of square feet and speedy development, but Thompson said the uniqueness of the school will be well worth the wait.
“That’s finding a tenant that’s making history,” said Thompson, who donned a red clown nose for Thursday’s news conference. “That’s not something we did. That’s something Portland did.”
While those at the news conference were excited about the school choosing Portland, the conservatory has a long way to go before it meets its goal of being an accredited degree-bestowing institution.
The conservatory must first receive its degree-granting authority from the Maine Department of Education — a nine-step process involving the Legislature and presidents of existing higher education institutions.
The conservatory would need to produce a report about its missions, objectives and financial resources, among other details. That would be reviewed by a committee, which would report to the education commissioner.
The commission then issues a report to the State Board of Education and the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education for approval.
The conservatory would need its degree-granting authority before it can receive its NEASC accreditation, said Barbara E. Brittingham, the director and president of NEASC’s commission on institutions of higher education.
NEASC also has a rigorous accreditation process, involving 19 steps. The school must prove its eligibility by meeting certain standards, such as enrolling, educating and graduating students. Once eligible, it must follow a process for candidacy, whereby it must meet a standard of integrity stating that it can meet all of its goals within five years.
Brittingham said the conservatory can issue degrees before it is accredited. Accreditation will allow students attending the conservatory to be eligible for financial aid, she said.
Thursday’s news conference, attended by more than 50 people, ended with an exhibition of contemporary circus performance.
Lindsay Culbert-Olds performed a routine on an aerial strap suspended from a large crane, while Kia-Melinda Eastman performed from a single rope.
City officials are optimistic, not only of the circus conservatory’s chances of succeeding, but about the $100 million mixed-use Thompson’s Point development as a whole .
“This is evidence the project is starting,” Economic Development Director Greg Mitchell said after the news conference.
Mitchell said the project embodies Portland’s best qualities — its creative economy as well as its educational and entertainment offerings.
“From my perspective it doesn’t get any better than this,” he said.
Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: