PORTLAND – Thompson’s Point, the former industrial site slated for a massive redevelopment, is being eyed for a college-level school for contemporary circus arts that its founders and a local developer say will be the first of its kind in the United States.
The newly formed Circus Conservatory of America is expected to announce plans Thursday to convert an existing 33,000-square-foot brick building into a performing arts school, where students will be able to earn a bachelor’s of fine arts in contemporary circus performance.
“This isn’t Ringling Brothers we’re talking about,” said Peter Nielsen, an officer of the fledgling nonprofit, in an interview Wednesday. “We’re not going to use animals. The audience is going to be sophisticated and therefore willing to pay more, and the performers are going to be artists and incredible athletes.”
The announcement marks the first new tenant for the $100 million development since the project 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 last 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 making animals do tricks.
Outfits such as Cirque du Soleil and Circus Smirkus have helped fuel interest in contemporary circus in the United States.
Such high-flying, gravity-defying performances can be dangerous. A Cirque du Soleil performer was killed during a Las Vegas performance in July when she slipped from her harness and fell to her death during a live performance.
There are many contemporary circus training programs in the United States, most of which offer weekend or week-long training sessions geared toward children.
What will set the Circus Conservatory of America apart, Nielsen said, is the fact that its founders are pursuing an accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges.
NEASC could not be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon.
Nielsen said students will be able to earn bachelor of fine arts degrees through the school. The current business plan foresees a full enrollment of 120 students, he said.
However, Nielsen said on Wednesday that it is too soon to provide other details, such as start-up costs, funding, the conservatory’s opening date and whether the students would live on or off campus.
Nielsen also would not say whether the conservatory was purchasing or leasing the building. “It’s fair to say we have a signed agreement and have made a nonrefundable deposit,” he said.
Details about the seven founding officers of the conservatory are expected to be released Thursday at a Portland news conference.
Nielson, 49, graduated from the University of Maine in Orono, and recently served as Vermont College of Fine Arts’ executive director of marketing and enrollment. He has produced theater, music, performance poetry, dance, and visual arts festivals and events throughout New England for more than two decades, according to his biography.
Nielsen said he has been working on establishing the conservatory for a year.
Amity Stoddard, of Warren, is another officer of the nonprofit. Stoddard, 39, graduated from College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, and has experience working with Circus Smirkus, the Big Apple Circus in New York City and Cirque de Soleil.
Thompson’s Point Developer Chris Thompson of the Forefront Partners said he is excited that the conservatory chose Portland.
“It’s the first of its kind in the country,” Thompson said. “These guys are making history. It’s going to add a lot of life to Portland.”
Thompson said he was impressed with the group’s business plan and he is convinced there is a need for this type of institution, not only in the U.S., but in Portland.
Nielsen, meanwhile, said the nonprofit circus conservatory chose Portland over other U.S. cities, such as Seattle and San Fransciso.
“We felt Maine would know what to do with this,” he said.
The $105 million Forefront at Thompson’s Point project — including a sports arena, hotel, restaurant, sports medicine lab and offices — was introduced with great fanfare in 2011 with the promise of transforming the 28-acre former industrial site in Libbytown near Interstate 295 into regional destination.
That year, the City Council agreed to rebate up to $32 million in property taxes to the developers over the next 30 years.
Developers have yet to break ground on the project, which continues to evolve since it was approved by the Planning Board in June 2012.
Forefront Partners recently changed their development plan to preserve the brick building and build a 175,000-square-foot office building in the first phase. The office was building was being built for a large tenant, largely believed to be South Portland based credit card processor WEX.
WEX officials recently announced it was shelving plans for an expansion or relocation for two years and that the company would likely stay in South Portland.
Thompson has since said he has been working with two potential tenants to fill the Phase I office space.
Meanwhile, developers are expected to submit revised plans that would locate a planned event center near the train tracks on land currently occupied by Suburban Propane. Thompson has said the company has agreed to relocate.
The city has been in negotiations to accommodate the company on a city-owned parcel on Riverside Street. However, no decision has been made.
Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: