Plans are underway for a technology and education campus to replace the B&M Beans plant in Portland, reflecting the changing culture and economy of the city.

A nonprofit representing the Roux Institute at Northeastern University is buying the iconic waterfront factory and plans to build a public-private complex with classrooms, research space, offices, housing, shops, restaurants, a hotel and public parkland on the 13.5-acre parcel.

 

The B&M plant that has made traditional New England baked beans for more than a century will shut down by the end of the year, according to its owner. Production of baked beans and other canned foods now made primarily at the Portland factory will move to plants in the Midwest, said B&G Foods, B&M’s parent company.

“The decision to move B&M from its longtime home on Portland’s Casco Bay was not made lightly,” but the aging plant was built for another era, the company said in a statement.

During B&G Foods’ discussions with the developers, “it became clear that the Roux campus is going to be a defining part of Portland for the next century and that our beloved plant and property could give rise to an all new legacy and do even greater service for the Portland community,” it said.

YEARS IN THE MAKING

A purchase-and-sale agreement for the property in East Deering was finalized Monday. Roux Institute representatives said it could take more than a year to get the permits and zoning permission to start construction. The full buildout could take 10 years or more and would be completed in multiple phases.

Selecting a location for the institute in the Portland area took more than three years, said Charles Hewett, executive director of the Institute for Digital Engineering and Life Sciences, or IDEALS, a Falmouth nonprofit set up to develop the campus.

The symbolism of transitioning a legacy manufacturing business into a high-tech campus isn’t lost on Hewett. He fondly remembers traveling past the B&M factory as a child in the 1950s.

“The site was integral to Portland’s economy in the late 1800s and 1900s,” he said. “What we really hope and believe is that the Roux Institute can make that site a driver of the Portland economy, the Maine economy, for the next century.”

The institute launched in early 2020 with a $100 million donation from David Roux, a technology entrepreneur and Lewiston native, and his wife, Barbara. The new campus is intended to house graduate education, corporate training, research and business development focused on building a local workforce in cutting-edge life and medical science, artificial intelligence and digital engineering.

“(The campus) will accelerate the institute’s attraction of faculty, students and partners, and thus contribute to developing the talent pool that will be essential to Maine’s 21st-century economy,” David Roux said in a statement. “In fact, this site is essential to achieving our vision, and we look forward to watching it develop.”

Initial plans include constructing up to 350,000 square feet of office, classroom and laboratory space, parking and a possible hotel. The B&M factory would be renovated and converted into incubator space for business startups.

A public waterfront park with biking and walking paths is planned for the perimeter of the property.

Future development could add faculty and student housing, restaurants, shopping and other features. The IDEALS nonprofit will own the property and issue long-term leases to private developers.

Hewett, the IDEALS executive director, would not quote a specific purchase price for the B&M property, but said the complete buildout would likely cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

B&M LEAVING PORTLAND

The campus’s proposed location is situated on a triangle-shaped parcel bordered by Interstate 295 to the west, an abandoned railroad track and working marina to the east, and Casco Bay to the south. A single road, Sherwood Street, runs under the highway and connects the site to the East Deering neighborhood.

It takes some imagination to see the property’s potential, Hewett said, but it can accommodate the institute’s growth for the next two decades, at least.

“Our goal is that the Roux Institute will be a fixture in Portland in a century, two centuries from now,” he said. “It’s going to benefit a part of Portland, which hopefully will welcome the new activity and kind of lift this type of endeavor can give any community.”

The new development may take some getting used to for generations of residents and visitors used to seeing the bright red B&M sign atop the five-story factory.

Inside, sacks of beans are transferred to 200-pound iron pots that are baked inside industrial ovens. The brand’s traditional method of making baked beans is one of its main selling points.

Production, which started at the current plant in the 1920s, will shut down in the last four months of 2021. The property sale will be completed by the end of the year, B&G Foods said. About 90 mostly unionized workers at the plant will be given severance pay and support finding new jobs, it added. B&M products, made exclusively in Portland, will be moved to a B&G Foods plant in Iowa and third-party factories in Illinois and Minnesota.

“The Roux Institute has offered to help B&G Foods support our employees by introducing us to other manufacturing companies who may be hiring in the Portland region, making connections with other educational institutions and programs, and potentially providing tuition support for those who are interested and eligible in pursuing further education at the Roux Institute,” the company said.

ROUX IS GROWING

The Roux Institute inaugurated its first class of students last fall, using offices at the Wex Inc. building on Fore Street in Portland.

In its first year, the school enrolled about 550 students in programs that include full-time graduate studies, part-time certification programs and short-term training courses for employees of the institute’s corporate partners.

First-year enrollment “exceeded initial expectations by double,” said Margaret Angell, head of partnerships and operations at the institute. The school will have at least 300 graduate students enrolled this year. About 1,000 graduate students and the same number of workers from industry partners are expected to pass through the institute by 2023, Angell said.

Exactly how many students the institute will have at its fully built-out campus is difficult to pinpoint because of its structure. Unlike a traditional graduate school, the Roux Institute is meant to be a workforce accelerator, tailoring programs for working professionals, those enrolled in corporate training, full-time students and others, including an intensive program for entrepreneurs.

While the institute’s courses lend themselves to remote learning and collaboration, and despite the uncertain future of in-person interaction in the coronavirus era, a physical campus is key to the institute’s aims, Angell said.

“We have a 100-year vision for building an engine of opportunity,” she said. “We live in a hybrid and global world, and we expect our partners and students to be out in that world, but we know that space matters and being together matters. A physical location like this will allow all of that across education, research and entrepreneurship. It is essential.”

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