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When Unity College announced it will lease 42,703 square feet at the Pineland Farms campus in New Gloucester for its new Technical Institute for Environmental Professions, the deal was just one of a surge in leases at the bucolic business park.
Unity College's new space brings to 50,000 square feet the school leases on the 224-acre campus owned by October Corp., which is a nonprofit title-holding company of the Libra Foundation. Overall, October Corp. owns 5,000 acres, much of it leased to Pineland Farms, the farming business run by a separate nonprofit.
Unity is one of 17 lease transactions at Pineland since February 2020, totaling more than 75,260 square feet leased, according to Boulos Co., October Corp.'s leasing agent. The amount is more than double the 32,192 square feet in leases signed in the 12 months leading up to February 2020.
In just the last month or so, leases have been signed by Mologic Inc., North Star Planning LLC, Trans Fusion Logistics LLC and Anaphoric Marketing. And tenants aren't just limited to office space. Mainely Urns, which manufactures and sells funeral urns, in February leased 6,829 square feet of industrial space in Brunswick Hall. Boulos brokers on most of the leases are John Finegan and Drew Sigfridson.
The vacancy rate for the Class A office space is about 15%, Sigfridson said. The lease rates, $13.50 a square foot, are about 35% less than normal market rates in Portland. He said the space is particularly attractive for local companies and nonprofits.
Overall, the flurry of leases has a lot to do with changing trends in office space spurred by the pandemic, Sigfridson said. "It's really been through COVID that there has been a significant increase in activity."
Businesses like the open spaces and amenities on the campus, including 30 kilometers of trails and two ponds. The 258,000 square feet of leasable space is spread among 19 buildings, and there's also free parking in abundance, a conference center, the Pineland Farms Market and more.
The location — half an hour from Portland and 20 minutes from Lewiston-Auburn — also helps.
"There's a large residential base in the area," Sigfridson said. "A lot of people live in Yarmouth, North Yarmouth, Pownal. It's kind of a central location."
It's that location that made the site perfect for Unity's new technical school, Unity President Melik Peter Khoury told Mainebiz. Pineland has proximity to both the workforce the program is looking to train and the businesses the program will partner with.
The Technical Institute for Environmental Professions will offer courses ranging from five-week certificate to associate degrees to help fill the skilled worker gap in the emerging fields of energy, sustainability, environmental engineering and the solar industry, as well as veterinary technology and other growth sectors.
Khoury said the focus is different from that of the college's traditional baccalaureate program on its Unity residential campus, about halfway between Waterville and Belfast. Both types of education are important, he said, but the type of training missing in Maine as green energy jobs developer is increasingly so.
"The world is changing," Khoury said. Jobs require a skilled specialized workforce. "We need more civic-minded sustainability-focused [workers in these fields] from all walks of life."
The college had leased space for its distance learning program at Pineland, beginning in December 2019, so already had a relationship with October Corp. Khoury said that the atmosphere at Pineland is a fitting setting for the focus on environment and sustainability.
Eric Hayward, executive vice president of the Libra Foundation said that the new environmental institute and Pineland Farms are "an ideal match."
“We are pleased to work with Unity College and its leadership as they launch a transformative educational model," Hayward said in a news release.
Khoury said the college had considered buying a building, but leasing made more sense, allowing Unity to focus on the new school rather than the nuts and bolts of managing a building. He said the partnership with Pineland was key to the decision.
The new program will take up Freeport Hall, the largest building on campus, and will require a full renovation. Classes should be able to start in the building in February, Khoury said.
The build-out is designed to accommodate 1,000 students, as well as the type of technical courses it will house.
Unity will have administrative office in Yarmouth Hall in addition to the space in Freeport Hall. Khoury said that the program will add 25 to 50 jobs in both faculty and staff. The distance learning program has created 55 jobs, many of them at the New Gloucester site.
While Unity will occupy a significant amount of space on the campus, most leases are much smaller. Sigfridson said leases average about 4,000 square feet. Spaces available range from 619 square feet in Auburn Hall, once the campus's main building, to 5,866 square feet in Durham Hall, a newer building next door to Unity's new space.
"There are a lot of small companies," Sigfridson said of Pineland's nearly 50 tenants. "But we have some large ones that have taken on multiple suites."
While the campus is 85% occupied, the property and surrounding area still are firmly the farmland that Pineland was originally carved out of. Freeport Hall, Unity College's new space, overlooks the white farm buildings, fences and fields of the Pineland Farms agricultural operation. In fact, farm fields surround the business campus.
Pineland opened as the Maine Home for the Feeble-Minded in 1908, a hospital, school and residential institution for people with developmental disabilities, orphans, the poor and other wards of the state. The state bought six farms to create the campus, which had several names, but similar function, over the decades.
A series of class-action lawsuits over abuse and conditions, beginning in the 1970s, led to the institution's closing in 1996. Buildings had been shut down over the years leading up to that, and when Libra Foundation bought Pineland in 2000 for $240,000 it was in rough shape.
Several of its 24 buildings were torn down, and October Corp. has spent the past 20 years renovating the campus into a business, recreation and education center. Boulos Co. has been the leasing agent since Libra Foundation bought the property.
"It's been a great partnership," Sigfridson said.
He said that over those years, not only has the campus been redeveloped, but the surrounding area has changed as well.
"It's very rewarding to see how the area and Cumberland County has started to fill in closer and closer to Pineland," he said.