University of Maine System officials approved an $80 million capital campaign Thursday aimed at a radical re-imagining of the Portland campus of the University of Southern Maine.

“I think you have incredible potential down here,” trustee Greg Johnson said after the presentation to the finance, facilities and technology committee. “I think it’s a very well thought out and excellent approach.”

The campaign will directly fund a $50 million, 1,000-seat performing arts center on the Portland campus, $15 million in athletic facility upgrades and a $15 million endowed “promise” scholarship program for full-time students with financial needs.

The $80 million is part of a larger $189 million plan that includes revamping the Portland campus to include a new $30 million student center, a five-story dorm, a boutique hotel and perhaps a food studies culinary institute. The hotel and culinary institute would be operated by students and tied to USM’s food programs and new tourism major. The student center project would also create a new quad on campus, after closing Bedford Street, and a parking garage.

“This is an exciting vision,” said USM President Glenn Cummings. “We have an extremely attractive area in Portland, and it’s not been developed beyond a commuter campus.”

After the unanimous committee vote Thursday, the proposal will go for a vote before the full board of trustees at their May meeting. The committee, which met in Orono, also approved a $200 million capital campaign for the University of Maine in Orono.

UMaine Orono President Susan Hunter said $112 million has already been raised toward that goal. The funds are primarily for financial support of faculty, students and some capital projects including an engineering building.

The USM capital campaign follows the approval of a new master plan last year, which outlined significant changes to the Portland campus, including two new quads, closing Bedford Street to unite the campus, adding a new professional graduate school building and a new garage.

USM has long been split between Gorham – with its dorms, athletic facilities and most of the buildings – and Portland, which has long been seen as a commuter campus. The distance between the two has been described as “the longest eight miles in the world.”

Cummings said the new vision for the Portland campus will also be better for students, who tend to want to move to Portland after spending their freshman and sophomore years in Gorham. But the high rents in Portland mean many of those students reduce their credit hours because they are working more.

“The equation is very bad,” he said. USM, like the rest of the system, is trying to encourage students to graduate in four years, which lowers student debt and improves retention and graduation rates. The Portland dorms would be intended for upperclassmen, graduate students and law school students.

The performing arts center is intended to highlight and complement USM’s School of Music, the only public school of music in Northern New England.

The center would include a concert hall about half the size of Portland’s Merrill Auditorium, and practice, classroom and reception space. It would include an art and photography gallery and the venue would be suitable for large ensembles and musical theater, according to the proposal.

“The time has come to recognize this USM gem by giving it the stage it deserves: an architecturally significant, acoustically superior performing arts venue in the heart of Maine’s largest city – Portland – the creativity hub of our region,” stated background materials from campus officials.

The current performance space in Gorham is so small the large instruments have to be dismantled for every performance, it is not climate controlled and has “substantial leaks.” USM recently lost the biennial hosting of the All-State Music Festival and Maine Music Educators Conference because of inadequate facilities, officials said.

A Portland space would attract more people to performances and increase collaboration with the Portland arts community.

USM has been talking about having a performing arts center for about 30 years, but officials have always previously tried to locate it in Gorham and those efforts faltered, in part, because it was too far from Portland.

Bolstering the Portland campus also opens up opportunities to have “market penetration” in Boston, which is closer than Orono, Cummings noted.

USM has already raised $5 million toward the athletic improvements, and $1.1 million toward scholarships, officials said.

The athletics improvements include $5 million in upgrades to Hill Gymnasium, $2 million for Hannaford Field, and $1 million each for upgrades to the ice arena, the field house, and the baseball stadium.

Chancellor James Page said the plans for USM were particularly striking considering the financial crisis just three years ago, when 50 USM faculty were cut to close part of a $16 million budget gap.

“It’s a great testimony to the leadership,” Page said. “In this short period of time, to be sitting here talking about making this kind of investment at (USM.)”

The last capital campaign for USM ended in 2009, raised $41 million and, among other initiatives, built the Abromson Center in Portland.

Noel K. Gallagher can be reached at 791-6387 or at:

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