The Little College That Could
Six years ago the best directions to the Hutchinson Center, the University of Maine's experimental satellite site in Belfast, included the advice to look for the empty parking lot. Newly opened amid high hopes, the facility was supposed to be a thriving center for undergraduate classes aimed at employees of the burgeoning MBNA facility next door. In fact, MBNA built the $8 million building and set it up for UMaine with that in mind.
It didn't work out that way. "This started as a very quiet operation," recalls James Patterson, the center's first (and recently retired) director. "There was no one in the parking lot, and maybe fifty people enrolled in classes."
Eventually, though, people did come, but not the people anyone expected. Today the Hutchinson Center is one of the most successful educational facilities in the University of Maine System. It is completely self-supporting, earning its way solely from the 1,100 students who take classes each semester, five hundred Senior College participants, and the numerous small conferences it hosts year-round.
But it isn't the undergraduate learning center its founders initially imagined. Today more than half the center's students are taking graduate-level courses in subjects ranging from business to social work, either directly from professors who travel from the Orono campus about forty miles away or through the Interactive Television (ITV) system and the Internet.
The center is also a symbol of the changes Belfast has seen over the years. Once the broiler capital of the world, processing millions of chickens a year from farms all over midcoast and central Maine, Belfast went into its own private depression when the chicken processors closed in the 1970s and early 1980s.
"When I moved here in 1976, there were thirty empty stores downtown," recalls Belfast Mayor Mike Hurley. "We attended endless meetings arguing about how we were going to turn the world around." Belfast's recovery in the 1990s paralleled the growth in development and population around Penobscot Bay. The town has emerged as a magnet for retirees as well as the financial services industry. And the Hutchinson Center has helped it become the educational center for Waldo and Knox counties. Hurley sees a distinct irony in the fact that the facility is built on the site of a former chicken barn.
The center is named for Fred Hutchinson, who was UMaine's president when MBNA chairman Charles Cawley approached the school about building the facility. The credit card company was building a huge new operations center in Belfast, with employment at the time forecast to reach upwards of seven thousand people, and Cawley saw a need for a college-level education center to help the company's employees advance in their careers. "It was an act of tremendous generosity," notes current University of Maine president Robert Kennedy, who was hired as the Orono campus' provost and executive vice president just as the center opened. One of his first acts was to hire Patterson.
The deal was simple. MBNA would build the twenty-thousand-square-foot center on Route 3 west of Belfast and underwrite its operating losses for the first few years. UMaine would provide the courses and the professors. "The initial intent was that 30 to 50 percent of the students would come from MBNA," Kennedy recalls. "We thought it was a pretty good deal. There wasn't a lot of risk for us."
But it was a first for UMaine. The center is directly controlled by the Orono campus, the first time in decades that Orono has had a satellite site. Most of the University of Maine System (UMS) distance-learning facilities are administered by the Augusta campus, although the University of Southern Maine has a branch in Lewiston.
Kennedy and the center's current director, Dr. Margaret Malmberg, give much of the credit for the Hutchinson Center's success to Patterson. "He invented this place," Malmberg insists. "The original intent couldn't be accomplished right from the get-go. He plotted ways to bring people in."
Patterson counters that it was just a matter of finding the right market. He had plenty of incentive. "The fifth day after we opened, the place was empty, there was no one here," recalls Patterson. "So I asked myself, how else can we make money?"
Patterson came to the Hutchinson Center after several years as the director of the Maine School of Science and Mathematics, the state's residential school for gifted students in Limestone. "He brought an entrepreneurial approach to education that really fit with the center's needs and vision," Malmberg says.
"The challenge was to get this place to break-even and beyond," Patterson recalls. Early on — "around about that fifth day," Patterson quips — he realized that the Belfast region had a shortage of decent conference facilities. Although the center wasn't initially designed as a conference facility, Patterson put the word out that it could be used as one. Last year 15,000 people attended meetings, seminars, retreats, and professional development classes at the center.
Then the center opened its doors to Senior College classes, aimed at retirees who envision, design, and teach courses in a wide variety of topics. The first handful of students has grown to more than five hundred, making the Hutchinson Center the second-largest Senior College site in the state after the University of Southern Maine in Portland.
"Waldo and Knox counties are the oldest counties in the oldest state in the country," Hurley points out. "And we have this incredible Senior College that wouldn't have been possible without the Hutchinson Center."
But the big change was the addition of graduate-level courses. "We draw students from all over the state," Malmberg explains. The master's degree classes in both Social Work and Business Administration are offered on a Friday night-Saturday schedule. "Students come in Friday night, take some classes, stay overnight in the area, and continue their classes on Saturday," she says.
"We've had the good fortune to find faculty who are willing to do things a little differently," Patterson adds. "If we do anything well, it's removing barriers to people gaining an education. Scheduling like that, and finding the instructors willing to work with it, goes a long way toward accomplishing that."
All of that success came into question when Bank of America bought MBNA last year. There was speculation of dramatic cutbacks and even complete closure of the Belfast offices, and the future of the company's relationship with the Hutchinson Center seemed in doubt. "Our lease ran out June 30," Patterson recalls. "Bank of America could have sold the building to someone else, jacked up our rent (a dollar a year), or closed us down. Instead they took the high road. They listened to all the local people who spoke up and said we needed to retain this asset. They donated the building [and the surrounding twelve acres] to the university."
Hurley admits that the Hutchinson Center's impact on Belfast, even its success, caught him by surprise. "The opening happened in the midst of so much else that was going on at the time — MBNA expanding, the new YMCA going up, new schools being built — that I almost underappreciated it. It was only later that I came to realize it was the single greatest thing that happened."
Hurley recalls his assistant at the time, a single mother who had been driving to UMaine in Orono one night a week for the previous five years to take one course each semester toward her degree. "Within a year of the Hutchinson Center opening, she had completed a bunch of courses and had her degree," he says. "The facility has been transformational for us."
The Hutchinson Center could be transformational for the university system, too. It is already UMS' second-busiest off-campus facility, and it requires not a cent of public money to underwrite its $1.6-million annual budget. "This place is completely self-supporting," Patterson explains. He admits he worries about the future now that the center is responsible for its own maintenance and repairs, but he hopes it has enough financial cushion to absorb the extra expenses.
"Can this model completely fly somewhere else without legislative funding?" Patterson asks rhetorically. "It would be touch and go. We had the advantage of having an extraordinary building donated to us. We don't have dormitories or the cost of full-time faculty."
Still, Patterson sees no reason the Hutchinson model can't work elsewhere with some modifications. "Once the incentives change, you find ways to make money," he asserts. The key, Malmberg adds, is to treat education as an entrepreneurial activity and respond to the needs of your market, the students.
"I would argue that the private sector influence on the development of this center was instrumental," Patterson adds. "In a setting where the expectation is that you make this work, you do it. I don't know anywhere else where this is happening."
UMaine President Kennedy says the facility has earned a central role in his vision of UMaine's future. "When I was installed as president, I talked about a new model for a land-grant university," he explains. "We need to partner with a lot of different community organizations. The Hutchinson Center fortuitously gives us that opportunity in the midcoast region. We can't be expanding all over the state, but certainly people have been approaching me and saying they want something like the Hutchinson Center in their town, too."
Even now, a discussion is taking place about creating something similar in Rockland in cooperation with the current Thomaston university center, Kennebec Valley Community College, the local high schools, and the vocational center. Kennedy calls it the "many flags, one complex" approach.
These days, Malmberg says, the Hutchinson Center is operating at the outer limits of its capacity. "We're at the point now where we're turning away options," she says. "The need to do more is quite clear."
"We can't run all the classes that are being requested," Patterson adds. "We can't handle all the conference requests. We can't offer math or science courses because we don't have any on-site laboratory spaces."
The center's building was designed with expansion in mind, and Patterson is working with Malmberg and university officials on a feasibility study for a 20,000-square-foot, $4-million addition. "We're looking at our ability to raise $2 million locally," Patterson explains, "and then take out a revenue bond for the other $2 million to be paid off by tuition income."
Another proposal in the works would bring a nursing program to the Hutchinson Center in partnership with the local Waldo County General Hospital and the University of Maine at Augusta. "Rural hospitals have a difficult time hiring nurses and medical personnel," Patterson notes. "This would be a different way of recruiting people for them."
No one is predicting the creation of the University of Maine at Belfast. But it is obvious that UMaine and the Hutchinson Center have tapped into an area with a growing need for their services.
"When I go up there now, I'm always amazed to see college-age kids walking in and out as well as older, nontraditional students and retirees," Hurley says. "This place can't be big enough for me. I hope it expands, and I hope they keep finding kids who want to go to school there, kids who want to stay here after they finish. When you think of Farmington, you think of UMaine-Farmington. When you think of Orono, you think of UMaine-Orono. What I want, when you think of Belfast, you think of the Hutchinson Center."