BRUNSWICK, Maine — The former domain of Navy sailors has become Maine’s newest institute of higher learning at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station, where Southern Maine Community College has started education programs that are hoped to continue for decades to come.

Fitting a college into a former military facility hasn’t been without its challenges, but 101 students are registered for fall courses that began Aug. 29 at Brunswick Landing, which is the new iteration of BNAS.

“I still get chills,” said James Whitten, special program director for SMCC’s brand-new Midcoast Campus. “After five years of hard work, we finally have students taking classes here.”

The Navy turned over two buildings — a hotel-like structure that was the base’s Bachelor Officers Quarters and the nearby Building 150 — to the college on July 6 of this year. Since then there has been a flurry of activity to ready the campus for students, including turning a former bar into a classroom and a laundry room into a computer lab. Whitten said the institution is making do with what is has for the present, but plans are in the works to take over three more buildings and increase enrollment to more than 2,500 students within the next few years.

“We’re confident we can reach that number,” said Whitten. “The vision of Maine’s community colleges is to provide a quality education at an affordable price. Keeping our prices affordable so Maine students can access education is vital.”

Classes in the SMCC system cost $86 per credit hour, meaning a full three-credit class costs $258.

In a parking lot where grass grows between the cracks because of a lack of use, Whitten envisions a grassy quadrangle. A nearby building will house a new composites technology program and another will become the Maine Advanced Technology & Engineering Center. That’s the site of Maine’s first pre-engineering program, which Whitten said will attempt to pull Maine from its 49th-in-the-nation rank for the number of engineers in the state.

Other initial program offerings include heavy equipment maintenance and operations — which will be taught where Navy pilots used to learn how to fly P-3 Orion reconnaissance aircraft in an elaborate flight simulator — multiaxis machining and nursing.

Nursing student Hannah Lindahl of Topsham, one of the facility’s first students, hopes to become a registered nurse in maternity. She plans to study for two years for her associate degree at SMCC’s Brunswick campus before transferring to University of Southern Maine for her bachelor’s degree. For Lindahl, the new program in Brunswick has made the exhaustive process of earning an advanced degree easier.

“If it wasn’t for this campus I’d be driving to [SMCC’s flagship campus in] South Portland five days a week,” she said. “I’m very happy to be here.”

Whitten said the entire project is possible because the Navy transferred the buildings to the college for $1 and Maine voters in June 2010 approved a $4.7 million bond package to convert the buildings for educational use. To Whitten, the college’s role is to create a pipeline of skilled workers for area industries — which include aeronautical businesses being developed on the former base and a cluster of firms working with carbon-fiber composites in the Bath-Brunswick area.

“Our intent is not to just take programs from the South Portland campus and just move then here,” said Whitten. “We want to create new programs in major areas where workers are needed. This campus is really about meeting the needs of the community and the industries that are here.”

Southern Maine Community College, which has major campuses in South Portland and Bath and satellite facilities in numerous locations, is Maine’s third-largest college, behind University of Maine at Orono and University of Southern Maine, with about 7,200 students. Since 2001, enrollment at SMCC’s facilities has grown by 146 percent, said Whitten.

Though many people have made the new college possible, Whitten credits Maine Sen. Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, and former SMCC President James O. Ortiz for the vision to put the project together. Ortiz recently retired and last month was succeeded by Ronald G. Cantor, who spent some 15 years in the community college system in upstate New York. Cantor said he has been dazzled with the rapid expansion of Maine’s community colleges in the past 10 years. Though that expansion has been good news for students and Maine at large, it has not been without growing pains, including a campus in South Portland that suffers from not enough room. Cantor said he hopes situations such as that one will resolve themselves alongside new triumphs, such as the Midcoast Campus.

“I’ve never see a community college system so integrated with local, regional and national systems,” said Cantor. “Today’s Maine businesses need a work force with skills that weren’t even around a few years ago. The growth has been incredible.”

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.