All residents of Hampden, Winterport, and Newburgh have an opportunity of a lifetime that could slip away without a favorable vote on Tuesday, Sept. 23. A “yes” vote will approve the building in Hampden of a new premier public high school, conceivably the best in Maine. The facility will include a performing arts center, wellness center (available as a community health clinic) and other significant features designed to enhance our communities. It will give youth, families and our seniors a true community centerpiece. It will allow for enrollment expansion beyond 800 students.

Let’s get right to it — the money. The total cost is about $51 million. Where will it come from? Mostly, the school will be paid for by our hard-working taxpayers. The state Department of Education will pay SAD 22 about $45 million. This is not a loan.

Voters need to consider the ballot language. Article 2 will say: “Shall the Board of Directors (of SAD 22) be authorized to issue bonds … in an amount not to exceed $51,552,741 to construct and equip a grade 9-12 school …”

Unfortunately, this is misleading since it omits the statement that $45,382,741 already is committed and will be paid by the state of Maine (without any debt obligation). The $45 million grant is in the treasury in Augusta, ready to be sent north, but must have local voter approval.

SAD 22’s new high school facility will be a “crown jewel” fitting into a unique multigrade education campus. Nearby will be the Weatherbee and McGraw elementary schools, the Reeds Brook Middle School, and the private-citizens-funded Bordick Park and multipurpose turf football complex. The school district already owns the 23-acre building site.

A “no” vote will kiss this opportunity goodbye. Other towns are waiting in the wings for the state’s money if the residents of Hampden, Winterport and Newburgh say no. It’s our money, our chance, we’ve earned it.

The $51 million total project cost also includes a local bond issue of about $6 million, which should not cost more than $70 for each $100,000 of home valuation for servicing the $6 million debt over the next 20 years — a small price to pay for what will be a community treasure.

The current facility is outdated, uncomfortable, crowded (look at the mobile portable classrooms spread all around) and lacks science labs, computer wiring, modern art, music, and drama capabilities and is missing other facilities that can give our children a first class launch. SAD22’s high ranking student achievements, its excellent college and technical school placements, and its high standards may be in jeopardy without a transition to the new high school. Incidentally, a broad based group of residents and school officials will figure out how to use or convert the existing high school, which might even generate revenue for the district.

What about the impact of a new public high school on real estate values? Earl Black, owner of Town and Country Real Estate, the largest firm in our area, has this to say: “Good schools are what made Hampden a sought-after community in the beginning. Hampden schools developed a reputation and people wanted to be part of that. If you look back at history … the better the school system, the more sought after the real estate.”

Our elected school board representatives, our administrators, and many residents have been working hard to see this day come for as long as 15 years.

My son Harvey, a graduate of Hampden Academy last June, and daughter Jenna, a 2006 graduate can give us firsthand insight. Here are some of Harvey’s views: “The old gymnasium is so overused. It’s a stage, a cafeteria, club room, even a place for spring baseball’s batting cage. The parking lot is a hazard after school. If anyone has an emergency, there is no way for them to get up to the front of the line of cars. Environmentally it is not good, with some students sitting in idling cars, burning up fuel, and spewing out hydro-carbons for as long as 10 minutes.

Jenna offers this insight: “When comparing Hampden Academy to other high schools in the area, it is way behind. The attempt to solve overcrowding by planting more portable classrooms around Hampden Academy is not a way keep the students in a cohesive system. A new school would provide an environment conducive to higher academic achievement.”

So, my fellow residents who go to the polls on Tuesday for this very special vote, I hope you will seriously consider this unique opportunity to avail ourselves of 88 percent of the financing of our new high school from state grant money. This translates to 88 cents of each dollar from Augusta and 12 cents local.

We all know the saying: “Opportunity only knocks once.” In this case, if we are not wise, there may be no potential for a second knock.

James W. Shue, a board member of Citizens for Quality Education, lives in Hampden.