The Maine Center for Graduate Professional Studies, proposed for the University of Southern Maine, could put Portland (and Maine) on the map for innovation and creativity. The center would house graduate programs in business, law, health and public policy. But it could be so much more, if we’re willing to think big.

Imagine this: The center’s entrance would feature a “STEM & Sustainability” art gallery, with exhibits drawing on science, technology, engineering and math and inspired by themes of environmental sustainability and Maine’s natural resources.

The center would be abuzz with the energy of its on-site innovation incubator – a workspace for entrepreneurs, designers, artists and “techies” in southern Maine’s growing technology and innovation sectors.

Why not also recruit the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce to have a presence? The Greater Portland Council of Governments? The Maine Association of Nonprofits? The Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development? Having them all together with each other, the professional studies programs, and the innovation incubator would make for incredible productivity, collaboration, cross-fertilization, and inspiration.

But it’s not just who and what’s in the center that matters – it’s also the building itself.

First, the building should feature state-of-the art environmental sustainability methods: net-zero (producing more energy than it consumes), rooftops with solar panels or garden space and zero-waste, both in the construction and the building’s operation.


Second, the center should be “Made in Maine,” using Maine-made materials, focusing on high-tech, recycled and re-used products. Why not build Maine’s first “plyscraper” with cross-laminated timber, a high-tech material being used in structures as tall as 30 stories in Europe and Canada?

Products like cross-laminated timber – already being researched at the University of Maine Advanced Structures and Composites Center in Orono – could play a role in Maine’s new forest economy, as global market forces transition us away from paper. What’s more, cross-laminated timber can play a role in battling climate change by actually locking up carbon, rather than producing it – unlike concrete, which produces as much as 8 percent of all human-derived carbon dioxide.

Third, the building’s design should be creative, iconic and beautiful. Think Sydney Opera House – but with a Maine flair. A design contest and crowd-sourcing of design ideas should be used.

Lastly is the challenge of bringing the center to fruition. Major real estate developments face big hurdles and many questions await. Which programs should the center include? Where should it be located? Could it provide an opportunity to create housing for students, visiting professors and speakers, entrepreneurs or artists in residence? How quickly should it be developed? Is there a role for a public-private partnership?

Answering these difficult questions provides a great opportunity to showcase a world-class process of consensus-building, community engagement and team-building. The university should draw on its own expertise in these areas at the Muskie School of Public Service and other programs, and would be wise to bring in the highest level of outside neutral expertise to help guide these efforts.

The issue of location – on the Portland campus versus downtown – shouldn’t be addressed in a vacuum; it should consider the long-term visions for the Portland campus and for Portland’s downtown. At a glance, however, win-win solutions are possible.

For instance, the Portland campus provides easy highway access, ample parking, integration with other USM programs and available land. And a high-frequency shuttle service could make access to downtown businesses and law firms as convenient, or even more so, than locating the center downtown. Given the short distance, shuttle vans could leave from each point every five to 10 minutes. This would meet a need that has gone unmet for quite some time.

My main point is this: We shouldn’t be afraid to think big about what the center could be. If done right, it could be one of the most important new developments in the Portland area in a generation, to the benefit of both our region and the state as a whole.

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