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Updated: January 9, 2024

With possible ownership change, UMaine System's Houlton outpost faces uncertain future

Courtesy / UMPI The Houlton Higher Education Center, at 18 Military St., has hosted public university classes and community education programs since 2001. The building was formerly a Shop 'n Save grocery store, which was donated by Hannaford Bros. and renovated at a cost of $2 million in state funds.

The 15,500-square-foot building in Houlton doesn't look like a traditional college campus — but then again, its duties go way beyond that.

So a potential sale this spring of the Houlton Higher Education Center, at 18 Military St., would represent more than a real estate deal. 

Formerly a grocery store that was donated by Scarborough retailer Hannaford Bros., the center has hosted public university classes and community education programs since 2001. But it's been losing money since the start of the pandemic. Most of the space isn't being used, and deficits are increasing.

With the explosion of online learning, tuition revenue has dropped by more than half — from $180,000 in 2018 to $70,000 in 2022, according to the center's owner, the University of Maine at Presque Isle.

Last summer, UMPI said it was looking to sell or transfer the property to someone else.

“The Houlton Center has been an educational anchor in the Houlton community for more than 20 years and it’s imperative that we find a way to ensure it stays that way,” UMPI President Ray Rice said at the time. “Identifying the right community partner will allow us to continue delivering classes and on-site services while transitioning to a more sustainable business model.”

Now the process of finding a partner is ratcheting up. At a Wednesday meeting, a recommendation for selling or transferring the Houlton Center will be vetted by a trustee committee of the University of Maine System, which has final say in the matter. The recommendation may then go to the full board of trustees on Jan. 29.

If the idea is approved, UMS would likely issue a request for proposals in February or March, spokesperson Samantha Warren told Mainebiz.

The trustees are looking for a partner "who will continue to be a positive influence for the city of Houlton, for UMS and its university members," according to a UMS meeting memo. At a public discussion in July, UMPI outlined other requirements, including "leaving intact technology and equipment at the site owned by the University of Maine System and the state of Maine." And there would be a restriction forbidding the building's use as a pharmacy or again as a grocery store.

A new owner would also have to let UMPI and its educational partners continue using the Houlton Center's classrooms and offices, according to the memo. But the carve-out would expire in five years.

It's too early to predict when ownership might potentially change, although UMPI said in July that six organizations had already expressed interest in the property. Last week, UMPI spokesperson Rachel Rice wouldn't disclose details but noted that the process was moving forward. "Everything is progressing according to plans we shared this summer."

If the Houlton Center ultimately changes hands this year, the carve-out means that as soon as 2029, three decades after the building was gifted as an educational resource, it might not be one.

What's at stake

There's a lot riding on the future of the Houlton Higher Education Center.

Not only does it host classes as part of UMPI, nearly 50 miles north. The center also serves as a satellite location for the University of Maine at Augusta, the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, Northern Maine Community College, the Houlton/Hodgdon Adult & Community Education Program, and TRIO, a group of college-access services provided by the Maine Education Opportunities Commission.

Students include a wide range of Mainers completing traditional academic programs. Some classes at the Houlton Center go toward undergraduate and advanced degrees at UMPI and UMA, and the Presque Isle university offers an associate degree in criminal justice, based entirely at the center.

But there are also learners of other types, including those seeking professional certification, building career skills, or simply pursuing a personal interest. The learners come from throughout southern Aroostook County, northern Penobscot County, eastern Washington County and some parts of New Brunswick, Canada.

In addition to its primary campuses in Augusta and Bangor, UMA leases space in the Houlton building and uses it as one of the school's own satellite centers. There are seven others throughout Maine, extending as far south as Saco.

It's hard to say how many students pass through the door in Houlton, UMA President Jenifer Cushman said, because they're free to use the center as they like. They may attend class there, or drop in to meet with an academic advisor or hook up to the broadband connection.

"Although we definitely have more online learners now, they often still want a physical location," she said. Of the school's more than 5,000 students, she noted, between one-third and one-half visit UMA off-campus centers.

Central to the community

The Houlton/Hodgdon Adult & Community Education Program, also a tenant at the building, works with 100 to 150 local learners each year, said Joe Fagnant, superintendent of Regional School Unit 29, which helps run the program.

The program's lease at the Houlton Center is due to expire June 30.

"We understand the University of Maine at Presque Isle wants to keep education as a focal point for the next owner operators, and we of course want to stay in the building which the community helped create," Fagnant said.

"We are hoping that the next entity will still want to partner with us as we offer many services for high school completion, college and career access programs, and workforce training and development. All of these offerings are important to the southern Aroostook region."

Fagnant said he has "options in mind if relocation is needed," but he wouldn't say what they are. For now, he's just hoping the adult ed program can stay where it is.

"We are a family of services in one location to assist our southern Aroostook families and we hope to be part of a future vision for the building."

That's a feeling echoed by Cushman, who calls the Houlton Center and other UMA branches "community gathering spaces."

In addition to being a learning resource, the center hosts events drawing residents from the Houlton area and southern portions of the County. Last year, the events included public talks and a quilt show, and Houlton-based Katahdin Bankshares Corp., parent of Katahdin Trust, held the company's annual meeting at the center.

"It's a hub," Cushman said.

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