May 30, 2020

MMA in housing crunch School mulls building on parcel in Penobscot

CASTINE – Maine Maritime Academy will take another look at property it owns in the town of Penobscot as a potential site for student housing after trustees announced Friday that they would drop plans to build on-campus housing.

The academy has been searching for several years for a way to provide additional housing for students and faculty members and previously had looked at the 200-plus acre parcel in Penobscot as a potential site.

Plans with a private developer to build housing, including faculty housing, on that site never materialized and the academy had concentrated on developing a site behind the graduate housing complex off Pleasant Street. That is the last on-campus site with potential for development, according to Trustee Paul Rich, chairman of the facilities committee.

“That project is not doable,” Rich told the board at its annual meeting. “So we’re going to dust off the Penobscot property plans.”

The Pleasant Street plan would have cost anywhere between $3 million and $6 million and would have created just 70 units. It is not feasible or cost effective, according to Ward Graffam, chair of the finance committee.

And it would not have met the academy’s housing needs. While that project was under review, MMA’s needs grew from 70 new units to more than 100, Rich said.

Enrollment at the academy has risen to more than 800 students, with this year’s enrollment expected to be around 840 students. About 219 of those students will live off-campus, according to Capt. Jeff Loustaunau, vice president for student enrollment and commandant of midshipmen.

In addition, as part of the training program for first-year students seeking an unlimited merchant marine license, about 80 of those students are housed on board the academy’s training vessel State of Maine during the first semester. The practice helps to orient students to living on board and also helps them to become familiar with the ship, he said.

“It’s not really an expanded dormitory,” Loustaunau said, “but it helps when we’re this tight.”

The academy might consider additional use of the training vessel to handle the housing crunch temporarily, Rich said. In addition, the academy could consider using floating dormitories, now in common use by the U.S. Navy and the maritime industry, for temporary student housing while it develops a permanent facility.

“We have a planning process where we have identified a number of sites,” he said. “It’s a matter of eliminating those that won’t work and pursuing those that will.”

In looking at 100 or more units, Rich said, the economies of scale may be such that it will be feasible for the academy to develop the housing project itself.

The board and administrators would like to focus on keeping facilities on campus, and will consider other in-town sites as well as the possibility of working with a local developer if an independent project could meet the academy’s guidelines and standards, Rich said. But the Penobscot property seems the best alternative at this point. For one thing, it is the only property the academy now owns.

Located about four miles from the campus on Route 199, the site already is used for academy boat storage and MMA has plans to develop parking for students there this year.

Committee members could have a recommendation by spring at the latest, and may even be ready to begin the design and permitting process.

In other board activity, Chairman William Haggett stepped down from that post and will leave the board having served as a trustee for the past 15 years, five of them as chairman. Haggett’s latest term has expired, but he indicated he will continue to serve until a replacement has been named.

Graffam, who was elected to fill the chairman’s post for the coming year, praised Haggett’s leadership and noted some of the accomplishments during his tenure, including reaching the goal of an enrollment of 800 students and spearheading a successful capital campaign, which is expected to reach its $22 million goal later this year.

Haggett will continue to work with the academy, serving on an advancement committee, according to President Leonard Tyler.

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