University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College on Westminster Street in Lewiston. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — A study is underway on whether to move the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College from Westminster Street to downtown to improve visibility and accessibility.

University of Southern Maine President Glenn Cummings is exploring moving University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College to downtown Lewiston. “I don’t want to get out of Lewiston, I want to get into Lewiston,” he said.

No definite decision has been made, University of Southern Maine President Glenn Cummings said. There’s no buyer for the campus buildings near Maine Turnpike Exit 80 on Westminster Street. “And we do not have a spot in downtown,” he said.

But, he’s exploring the idea with a goal of possibly moving in three to five years. Cummings said he wants the campus to be closer to the heart of Lewiston. “I don’t want to get out of Lewiston. I want to get into Lewiston.”

Some in Lewiston-Auburn love the idea. Others are lukewarm. Several on the college’s Community Advisory Board said more programs and more support from USM are more important than moving. While the Portland USM campus has received robust backing, marketing of USM-LAC has been nonexistent, some contend. And despite Cummings’ assurances, a few are worried a move would lead to the eventual closing of the Lewiston-based campus.

WHY THE COLLEGE SHOULD BE DOWNTOWN

Cummings has received pushback from community leaders who aren’t convinced a move is necessary. He responds to such voices: “This is your fault. … When I talk to people like Advisory Board member Chip Morrison who say, ‘You can’t do that,’ I tell them, ‘You guys were great in 1988. You got us a great campus 3 miles out of town.”

The location made sense then, he said. There wasn’t a lot going on downtown. He tells local leaders that after the college opened, “You spent the next 30 years rebuilding downtown Lewiston. You tripled the size of the hospital. You brought in 600 new employees at TD Bank. You welcomed new immigrants who desperately want education. You made new restaurants and shops, new life.” Why, Cummings said, “would I not follow their lead?”

If the USM-LAC made its home in, say, a renovated mill space in the center of Lewiston, employees from TD Bank could attend evening classes, Cummings said. Nurses and other hospital workers could easily access nursing programs and other classes. The college would be within walking distance to many who live in or near downtown.

“That’s the dream, but the finances have to be right,” he said. “We have to have a buyer. We’d have to have a place. It doesn’t have to be in the mills.”

Cummings said he’s starting with an appraisal of the Westminster Street campus, with results expected this month.

“We own it. It’s paid for,” Cummings said.

A challenge with the current location, some say, is a lack of visibility. Some call the USM-LAC one of the community’s best-kept secrets. When former USM-LAC Dean Joyce Gibson came to Lewiston in 2009, a local real estate agent brought her to Central Maine Community College in Auburn.

While there’s been more visibility of USM in Portland, including large USM Huskies logos on city buses, there’s no marketing in Lewiston.

USM-LAC interim Dean Brian Toy at the Lewiston campus on Monday morning July 1, 2019. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Brian Toy has been the interim dean at USM-LAC for two years. He acknowledged marketing is needed.

“I know the Lewiston campus is here,” he said. “I’m a little taken back how the general population doesn’t know it exists. We need to change that. We need to get out and tell the L-A community not only we’re here, but what we do.”

Meanwhile, the for-profit Purdue University on downtown Lisbon Street, enjoys high visibility.

“Just being downtown with a big sign would help,” Cummings said. “If we could be where Tom Platz is rebuilding Mill 5, imagine how great that would be with 30,000 cars a day crossing the bridge.”

A downtown presence would be powerful for attracting new Mainers and young students taking early college courses in high school, Cummings noted.

Being more visible would help Lewiston-Auburn College become more competitive, Cummings said. If a downtown move happens, “we would still keep it a college. It would maintain a dean.” He said he would also offer to have the University of Maine at Augusta courses given in Lewiston and Senior College classes “to come with us.”

Moving the Lewiston-Auburn College to downtown Lewiston would be great for the college and community, said Beckie Conrad, outgoing president of the Lewiston-Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. Thriving urban centers and higher education go together, she said.

Another possibility is having a smaller presence downtown and maintaining the Westminster Street campus, Cummings said. “Even if we can’t afford to move everything, we could have a foothold downtown. We’re talking about that.”

Being downtown one way or the other would be good for the local economy, would build social energy “and more importantly get to our students better. There’s a whole host of students we’re not getting now,” he said.

Beckie Conrad loves the idea of relocating the college downtown.

When the 1980s local referendum asked voters to approve the college, Conrad worked for Bates College and was involved in promoting it. “I was on the ‘get-out-the-vote’ calls,” said Conrad, who just stepped down as Lewiston-Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce president.

She’s thrilled the college is in Lewiston and thrilled with the thousands of graduates the college has turned out.

But downtown would be better, Conrad said. A member of the college’s Community Advisory Board, Conrad said a good success formula involves “terrific urban centers that have higher education and health care downtown. We have some higher education downtown, Purdue, but rounding it out with the university would add opportunities to our youth.”

Moving USM-LAC to downtown Lewiston might make sense, “as long as a guarantee goes with it that it will be here and offer needed programs,” said former chamber president and current USM-LAC Community Advisory Board member Chip Morrison.

Having grown up in Providence, Rhode Island, Conrad said she’s seen the success of integrating higher education, the arts and health care. “It is a mix that works. A dynamic economic driver.”

As a former vice president of the Maine College of Art in downtown Portland, she’s also seen how being downtown benefits a school. Getting to the existing campus near Exit 80 “is the longest 3 miles for someone who doesn’t have a car.” That’s a barrier, Conrad said, she’d like to see removed.

SKEPTICS: BETTER PROGRAMS MORE CRITICAL THAN MOVING

Others aren’t so sure.

Doris Bonneau and Chip Morrison, USM-LAC Community Advisory Board members, said more important than a new address downtown are more programs.

“Central Maine Community College is in a field way out in Auburn,” said Bonneau, who works at the Lewiston-Auburn College’s Franco-American Collection center at the Lewiston campus. The CMCC campus “used to be a poor farm,” she said. When the college opened, “they didn’t even have buses. Yet CMCC has seen robust enrollment growth “because they have programs that draw people.”

USM-LAC has suffered setbacks, Bonneau said, due to cost-cutting in 2014 made by former USM President David Flanagan. The college has not rebounded. “The question is not where we should be, it’s what should be the focus for the Lewiston-Auburn campus. We need programs, whether or not the programs are here or downtown.”

Morrison said whether he supports a downtown move “all depends on the programming. For me the issue has always been this area needs to be served by the University of Southern Maine. We worked really hard in the early years to make sure that happened.”

In the 1980s Morrison was among those who lobbied state leaders to create a state university campus in Maine’s second largest city. During that time, Morrison said, he heard people in Portland say “Lewiston-Auburn does not want higher education.” The thousands of students who have earned college degrees since 1988 have proved them wrong, he said.

Moving to a more central location might make sense “as long as a guarantee goes with it that it will be here, and it will offer needed programs,” Morrison said. “I don’t think USM has given enough thought to expanding programs in this area.” It has some good programs, like leadership studies and social and behavioral sciences, but too often students have to “piece together an education” by taking courses in Lewiston, online and in Portland. “We need more majors, more classes,” he said. “It’s all about the long-term commitment to have the education facilities in Lewiston-Auburn and show that with investment, not just words.”

Lucien Gosselin is worried moving USM-LAC to downtown Lewiston would mean leasing instead of owning the facilities, and that could make it easier for the college to be closed. “The solution is more course offerings and the application of technology,” Gosselin said.

Lucien Gosselin, former president of the Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council and a Community Advisory Board member, is another who in the 1980s actively advocated for a campus in Lewiston.

During the search for a site, money was tight. Initially, land and buildings had to be leased, Gosselin said, “but we pressed strongly to get an option to own the building.”

He’s worried that if a move to downtown happens, it’s likely the current campus buildings would be sold and downtown buildings leased. “Owning is a big plus. It becomes an anchor, part of the community,” he said. “An option to lease something downtown scares me. There’s a high probability down the road we’re going to see the university go away.”

A lease has timetables; it can be renewed or terminated. “The fear I have is, if and when the day comes that the lease is up, and enrollment isn’t keeping up, it’s a lot easier at that point to say, ‘Sorry, we’ve decided to close the campus. That would be a terrible mistake.'”

Those fears are not allayed by the fact that enrollment at USM-LAC is half what it was compared to 2005. (See related story.)

Whether a downtown location is better is questionable, according to Gosselin. He and former Dean Betty Robinson pointed out that big investments have been made in the campus since its creation, including science labs, a second floor, a second building and expanded parking. Those taking Senior College classes love the availability of parking and not having to walk far. “We like it where it is,” said Lucy Bisson, chairwoman of the Senior College Board at USM-LAC.

It’s close to the turnpike, making it easy for commuting students.

“When I was teaching there I had students from all over — Bath, Waterville, Kennebunk and Lewiston,” Gosselin said. 

While not convinced moving downtown would boost enrollment, he is sure marketing and more course offerings would. “One of my big disappointments is we have not taken advantage of technological innovations,” he said. Through technology, “any course offered in Portland or Gorham should be available in Lewiston. Very little of that has been done.”

CUMMINGS: MORE PROGRAMS IN THE WORKS

Cummings said plans are underway to boost course offerings in Lewiston.

The Lewiston campus won’t be able to offer a full 54 programs, he said, “however you can go through an entire undergrad program in Lewiston if you’re willing to take some classes online.”

Toy, the interim dean in Lewiston, said his Portland bosses are working on adding more nursing course offerings at the Lewiston campus. He’s not sure if that will happen this fall or next year. There’s also planning for more occupational therapy courses, including a doctoral program, as well as more health sciences classes.

Toy hopes to get specifics on what will be added and when. “But we don’t have them today.”


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