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August 11, 2023

Two Cambodian nonprofits in Maine launch fundraiser to build cultural center and temple

drawing of buildings with words Courtesy / Watt Samaki Temple The goal is to build a cultural and community center and a traditional Cambodian Buddhist temple on 30 acres of land in Westbrook, to replace a smaller one in Buxton.

Two nonprofits that serve Maine’s Cambodian community launched a fundraising campaign this week to construct a cultural and community center and a traditional Cambodian Buddhist temple on 30 acres in Westbrook. 

The project and capital campaign are called “Welcome Home.”

Watt Samaki Temple is spearheading the initiative with support from its community partner, Khmer Maine.

“Our plans include building a community center where Cambodian culture, arts and music can find a home and also serve as a place for English language classes, food pantry and community gardens,” said Navan Leng, the temple’s president.

The project is not just a temple for the Cambodian Buddhist community, he noted.

“We are exploring partnerships with land trusts and trail organizations to look at improving and building publicly accessible trails that connect to the city of Westbrook’s existing trails and city forest lands,” he said.

group of people lined up
Courtesy / Watt Samaki Temple
Watt Samaki Temple and Khmer Maine launched a fundraising campaign, Thursday, to build facilities designed to serve the Cambodian community and the general public.

According to the temple’s website, the Buddhist faith plays an important part in Cambodian culture, especially for refugees and immigrants who are acclimating to life in Maine and the U.S. Watt Samaki provides religious ceremonies, funerals, blessings and the celebration of cultural holidays such a Pchum Ben and Khmer New Year. 

For the broader community, the temple is a place to learn about Buddhist culture, practices, traditions, and history. 

For now, the temple is located on 8.6 acres in Buxton. According to a news release, the community has outgrown the location and worked with Coastal Enterprises Inc. to secure financing to acquire the 30-acre parcel at 00 Cumberland St. in Westbrook. The official street address is pending. 

The temple and its community partner Khmer Maine are now working to engage civil engineers, wetland biologists and other experts to prepare for the formal planning board approval process. The temple and Khmer Maine plan to hold neighborhood meetings to get feedback from neighbors on potential plans and uses for the land. 

Maine’s Cambodian community numbers around 2,000 according to census figures. 

“Since refugees of the Cambodian genocide started arriving in the 1980s, our community has moved beyond Portland and Sanford to surrounding areas, like Westbrook, Gorham, Windham, Saco, Biddeford, and some now even in Augusta and Bangor,” said Khmer Maine President Marpheen Chann. "Our children go to Maine schools, our young men and women join the armed forces, our entrepreneurs start their own businesses.”

person in white polo shirt smiling
Marpheen Chann.

Chann is a 2022 Mainebiz 40 Under 40 honoree.

The total cost of the project hasn’t yet been determined, Chann told Mainebiz.

Currently, the temple is looking to raise $1.5 million split into two phases:

  • Phase I: Cultural and community center and residence — $1 million (includes the bulk of the civil engineering, surveying, utility, and paving and preparation costs). The timeframe for fundraising and construction is one to three years from now.
  • Phase II: Traditional wat, a relatively small ceremonial and decorative building — $500,000. The timeframe is three to five years from now.

The cost of the land was $475,000. The temple made a down payment of $95,000 and the amount financed by CEI was $380,000. 

Khmer Maine is a nonpartisan, grassroots organization working to improve the quality of life and the social and economic well-being of Cambodians in Maine through cultural exchange, community building and civic engagement. Khmer Maine also partners to support members of Maine’s Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander communities and strives for solidarity with Black and Indigenous communities in Maine.

“Our community has called Maine home going on half-a-century now and just like the Irish, Italian and French Canadian communities who came before us, it’s time to come forth and say ‘We are Maine, too,’” said Chann.

Host city

Westbrook’s Mayor Michael Foley spoke in support of the project, saying, “As the city of Westbrook continues to diversify…the community center and the temple that will be here will be a tremendous benefit to the community and to the region.”

Foley noted that Cambodian events such as this year’s new year celebration have brought visitors to the city.

“And this plot of land is unique as it’s connected to the city forest, which connects into a number of trail systems as well as our community center,” said Foley. “So it will be a unique economic development opportunity to bring people to Westbrook from all over New England to worship here but also connection to trails and recreational opportunities.”

Phase 1 of the project includes land acquisition, fundraising and construction of two buildings — the community center and an associated residence for monks.

The acquisition has been completed. The next step is to engage civil engineers, biologists and architects to prepare it for construction by only clearing necessary trees, paving driveways, cleaning up and installing connections for city services and utilities. 

The groups said they will also look to partner with land trusts, conservation organizations and trail networks to integrate into existing trail systems and enhance the environment and natural features.

Phase 2 focuses on construction of the temple. That includes creating blueprints and gathering funds from various sources such as community members, foundations, government agencies and corporate sponsors. The groups said they also plan to work with business owners, stakeholders and state, local and federal entities, as well as their community and nonprofit partners and allies, to raise the required capital and ensure the project's completion.

The goal is to complete construction of the new temple, which is called a ‘wat,’ within the coming five years.

Also envisioned is the establishment of collaborative partnerships with community organizations and land trusts to provide public access to the new center. Various ideas under discussion include integrating the property with existing trail systems, organizing educational tours and visits for schools and colleges, and featuring a museum showcasing Cambodian culture, history and art.

The Cambodian community is seeking individual and corporate donations, including lumber and building supplies. 

For more information, click here.

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