BRUNSWICK, Maine — When about 80 students arrived a year ago for their first classes at Southern Maine Community College’s new campus at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station, special program director James Whitten’s personal goal was to see that number reach maybe 300 in a year’s time.

This semester, there are 380 students enrolled.

Whitten, who admits his goals often fall in the ambitious category, knew there was a lot of work to do. Buildings used formerly by the Navy — including some that were not turned over until last November, two months after the start of classes — had to be remodeled and renovated. Courses of study — including first-of-their-kind pre-engineering and composites technology offerings — had to be developed and populated with faculty. Funding from a variety of sources had to fall into place and expensive engineering and composites equipment had to be purchased and installed. And most important, students had to sign up.

Though there is still a lot of work left to bring the campus to capacity, students have enrolled in droves.

“That’s pretty phenomenal,” said Whitten. “I’ve been running around all week grinning like a fool.”

Whitten and SMCC now have their sights on a new goal of bringing the campus to capacity within the next few years, which means that by 2015 there could be as many as 3,000 students studying there.

While that’s good news for the SMCC system, Whitten said the real success story behind that level of enrollments will unfold in the private sector, where ventures ranging from hospitals to cutting-edge manufacturers of composite products will benefit from a steady pipeline of skilled workers.

To that end, the Midcoast Campus is focusing on producing graduates with the skills needed in Maine’s workforce, namely registered nurses, people with business degrees and workers in the engineering and composites industries. Those initial offerings also represent increasing collaboration between the community college system and the University of Maine.

In a state that ranks near the bottom in the nation in terms of the number of engineers, the two-year pre-engineering program at SMCC’s Midcoast Campus seeks to feed students into the University of Maine’s Bachelor of Science degree programs. And with new forms of super-strong and versatile composites overtaking wood, steel and fiberglass in the construction of boats, wind-power components and many other products, SMCC debuted its Maine Advanced Technology and Engineering Center, including the Composites Engineering Research Laboratory, this year. There are approximately 20 students each enrolled in the composites and pre-engineering programs.

“The community college is tasked with a number of things, but overall it’s about providing quality opportunities and better-paying jobs at a more-agreeable cost,” said Whitten. “This is a direct response to industry.”

Andrew Schoenberg, SMCC’s composites department chair, said he came to the position after 31 years of experience in materials manufacturing. Schoenberg said he and the college system are in the midst of negotiating partnerships between the composites and engineering programs and private-sector business groups, such as the 50-member Maine Composites Alliance. Students’ application of the knowledge could benefit them in the marine, construction, aerospace, alternative energy or consumer products industries.

“The students here learn the science related to all of those five sectors,” said Schoenberg, who added that the composites lab also is moving toward becoming a research center.

Some students, such as Kody Simon of Brunswick, already work with composites but want to increase their knowledge and career prospects. Others, such as Robert Harper of Woolwich, are new to the industry.

“I saw something about this in the newspaper and I thought it sounded interesting,” said Harper.

Whitten said he hopes to open two additional buildings on campus as soon as possible, but it’s a matter of funding — specifically bond proceeds that were approved by voters in June 2010 that Gov. Paul LePage is withholding until the state’s financial situation improves.

According to a written statement by SMCC President Ron Cantor in response to questions from the Bangor Daily News, SMCC has used about $2.3 million of the $4.75 million in bond funds on the Midcoast Campus, meaning that about $2.45 million remains frozen.

“While those funds are inaccessible, we continue to work with the Maine Community College System, the administration, the Legislature and our donors to identify additional funding that will allow us to serve growing numbers of students and businesses,” said Cantor.

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.