In an effort to best support the educational needs of southern Aroostook County and surrounding areas, the University of Maine at Presque Isle is seeking a community partner to ensure the long-term sustainability of the Houlton Higher Education Center. University leaders will host a community meeting on Wednesday, July 26 at 5 p.m. at the Houlton Center to share efforts to date and answer any questions community members may have.
“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. “Identifying the right community partner will allow us to continue delivering classes and on-site services while transitioning to a more sustainable business model.”
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, multiple institutions provided face to face instruction at the Houlton Center. But since then, class sizes have shrunk and the majority of students have migrated from in-person to online classes, resulting in a large amount of underutilized space. Tuition revenue has dropped by more than half—from $180,000 in 2018 to $70,000 in 2022—and deficits are projected to increase under the current organizational structure.
“Without the ability to cover building costs, it’s not financially feasible for us to continue operations in our current model. But because UMPI is committed to staying in Houlton and ensuring this building continues to provide educational opportunities, we’re looking for a community partner willing to lead, and potentially take ownership of, the building and occupy the unused space—specifically an organization committed to providing UMPI and other educational partners with designated space for operations,” Betsy Sawhill Espe, UMPI’s Chief Business Officer, said.
Such a partner would be responsible for all plant, property, and equipment needs including taxes and would need to agree to some specific stipulations, including leaving intact technology and equipment at the site owned by the University of Maine System and State of Maine that provides connectivity for all educational institutions and others in northern and eastern Maine. There is also a restriction in ownership: the property cannot be used as a grocery store, market for any food sales, or any kind of pharmacy.
UMPI leaders are actively searching for this partner. Once an initial plan is formed, it will be presented to the University of Maine System Board of Trustees for review.
“Several organizations interested in pursuing a partnership like this have come forward already, so we have no doubt we will find an excellent steward for this unique space,” Sawhill Espe said. “We’re looking forward to speaking more with the greater Houlton community on July 26, addressing any potential concerns and gathering feedback that will help us to make this the strongest partnership possible.”
“Maintaining a higher education presence in Houlton is imperative,” Tracy Rockwell, Houlton Center Director, said. “We’re confident we’ll find a solution that not only meets the needs of UMPI and the organization we ultimately partner with, but also enriches the wide range of educational offerings and opportunities at the Houlton Center.”
Established in 2001, the Houlton Higher Education Center has been providing educational opportunities to the people of southern Aroostook County, northern Penobscot County, eastern Washington County, western New Brunswick, Canada, and beyond. Administered by UMPI, the Houlton Center houses five additional educational partners, including the University of Maine at Augusta at Houlton, University of Maine Cooperative Extension, Northern Maine Community College, the Houlton/Hodgdon Adult & Community Education Program, and TRIO (Upward Bound, Talent Search, and Maine Education Opportunity Center). Through UMPI, the Center also hosts High School Aspirations, aimed at increasing the number of students who access and succeed in college. In addition, the Center hosts an array of others who spend one or two days a week in the space supporting students’ educational needs.