April 01, 2020

Vassalboro site favored for new police academy > North-south issue comes up at hearing on location limit

AUGUSTA — A just completed study of six possible new sites for the Maine Criminal Justice Academy has concluded that the best option is in Vassalboro at the former Oak Grove Coburn School.

With an estimated cost of $11 million, the Vassalboro project was given preference over five other proposals, including one from Waterville, where the current academy has outgrown its home. Other sites being considered were the Pineland Center in New Gloucester, University of Maine at Augusta and Loring Commerce Center at Limestone.

The study was done by a Portland architectural firm at the request of the state’s Bureau of General Services and the King administration. Members of the state Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee learned of the report Wednesday as they conducted a public hearing on a bill to change the law prohibiting the academy from being located outside the Augusta area.

When they heard testimony from police experts that the Vassalboro location was the one likely to be selected, they wondered if their hearing was an exercise in futility.

Millinocket Economic Director Mark Scarano assured them it wasn’t. Even though Millinocket’s proposal received the lowest rating of the five contenders, Scarano said it was important that all Maine communities be allowed to participate in the process. “We put some time into this proposal because we wanted it to be considered. That’s fair. Whether the community is northern or southern, all should be considered.”

Others at the hearing, however, opposed the change in wording because they testified the academy must be centrally located to maintain the quality of unpaid instructors now available from the southern Maine labor pool.

Brian MacMasters, chairman of the MCJA board of trustees, told the justice committee that only 5 percent of Maine’s 3,500 law enforcement officers were located north of Bangor. Of the 136 instructors at the MCJA, MacMasters said, most of those would not volunteer their time if teaching a two-hour course meant driving six hours to northern Maine.

“The character of our training, training that stands out in the nation, is the direct result of the central location of the academy,” MacMasters said.

Joe Young, Winthrop’s police chief and president of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, agreed. “Two-thirds of the law enforcement population as well as two-thirds of the instructors are in the southern part of the state.” Young used himself as an example. “My town allows me to teach at the academy. If, for example, an academy were sited in Aroostook, it would take me 16 hours to teach a two-hour class. It would be a day trip up, stay overnight, and a day trip back. My community would not allow that.”

Young said the central location of the academy yields the number of available instructors which also affects the costs municipalities incur sending officers for training.

A workshop has been set by the Criminal Justice Committee to discuss the MCJA statute at 10 a.m. Feb. 4.

No date has been set for the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee to review the MCJA site study and the project’s accompanying bond issue.

According to the study, Oak Grove, which is already owned by the state and has been vacant since 1989, received the highest number of points for its proposal, with heavy emphasis placed on the school’s location near Augusta and the organization of the buildings on the school’s campus. Originally founded in 1928 as a private girls school, the campus includes a main building (Briggs Hall), a gymnasium, horse barn, horse riding rink and private residence. It encompasses 113 acres. Extensive renovations would be required, since the buildings have no insulation and single glazed windows. New stairs and elevators would be required. The school’s auditorim would be renovated, housing updated and a tactical center addition built.

The study also estimates that the move to Vassalboro would create 17 new local jobs, increase local income by $602,000 a year and increase local sales by $639,000 a year.

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