Maine Maritime Academy students walk by the ABS Center for Engineering, Science, and Research in this undated photo. Photo courtesy of Maine Maritime Academy Credit: Maine Maritime Academy | BDN

Maine Maritime Academy has purchased a slice of the former Verso Paper mill site in Bucksport for a continuing education annex that is expected to eventually draw 2,400 students to the town annually.

The Maine Maritime Academy Center for Professional Mariner Development will sit on four acres overlooking the Penobscot River. It will include an existing, 20,000-square-foot administration and instruction building. Maine Maritime plans to renovate and move into it this fall, with a new firefighting training facility opening next spring.

The purchase marks another step in the re-purposing of the Verso Paper mill site that closed in late 2014, eliminating 570 jobs. The center could prove a boost local businesses, with mariners seeking recertifications and Maine Maritime students patronizing restaurants, hotels and other businesses while in town.

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The center should also generate funds that will “support the academy’s financial future,” academy President William Brennan said.

Earlier this year, Maine Maritime launched a campaign to raise $20 million, to effectively double the money devoted to scholarships and student aid. Eighty percent of the academy’s 970 students require financial aid.

The annex will bring some name recognition to Bucksport as a seafaring-industry town, said Richard Rotella, the town’s economic development director.

Aside from the training center, Bucksport has four seafood processing plants at its industrial park, is pursuing grants to expand its facilities to lure more cruise ships to town and a $250 million land-based Atlantic salmon producer closed on its own purchase of some of the mill site earlier this month.

The new center “is a wonderful addition to the mill site because there will be 50 merchant mariners there a week for 50 weeks a year once the school is up to capacity,” Rotella said.

In its first year, about 400 maritime students would use the new center. Another 500 maritime professionals would take recertification classes and training for a total of 900 students that first year. If all goes as planned, the number of professional sailors seeking recertification will rise to 2,000 or so in five years.

Local police and firefighters, state game wardens, National Guard members, and hazardous waste and chemical first-responders will also train at the center, academy officials have said.

The center could appeal to 20,000 mariners from New England and from as far away as Ohio who require periodic training, officials have said.

The mill site deal took years. The school first expressed interest in setting a safety and survival institute there in April 2016. But MMA then examined a site in Penobscot before Brennan announced in November that the college had signed a purchase-and-sale agreement with mill site owner American Iron and Metal. They expected to finalize the deal in 60 days.

AIM Development, a subsidiary of a Canadian scrap metal firm, bought the 111-acre mill site at 2 River Road and several buildings across the street, as part of a $58 million purchase in 2015.

Located in Castine, Maine Maritime offers undergraduate and graduate degree programs that include engineering, management, science and transportation.

Watch: Students aboard MMA training ship run safety drills before disembarking for 60-day voyage

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