Gov. Janet Mills toured the then-new Maine Maritime Academy continuing education annex with academy President William J. Brennan in March of 2020. Credit: Nick Sambides Jr. / BDN

Maine Maritime Academy plans to soon break ground on a fire training facility at the old paper mill site in Bucksport that would allow students and professional mariners to practice putting out fires in ship-like conditions.

The project has been plagued by delays due to the ongoing pandemic, but the academy put it out to bid this month and expects construction of the four-story facility at its recently opened Center for Professional Mariner Development to be completed by the end of the year.

The 3,500 square foot building will be the latest and — for the moment at least — last addition to MMA’s development center, which opened in 2020 at the mill site to help mariners in New England keep their certifications up to date.

In 2019, the academy estimated it could have the state-of-the-art firefighting building up and running by spring 2020 but those plans were scuttled with the pandemic. The academy later hoped to start construction last summer before being delayed again. Students are now expected to try out the facility for the first time at the start of 2023.

The building will be able to mimic growing and dying fires on a boat to meet the certification needs of many mariners, said Peter Stewart, the facilities director at the academy and a member of the Bucksport town council. There is no other such facility in eastern Maine, and possibly the whole state.

“Mariners will be able to get this training closer to home,” he said.

The building could also be used to practice fighting fires in homes and other buildings on land.

Local fire chiefs in western Hancock County said having such a facility in their backyard would be a huge benefit.

“It would certainly be welcome,” Bucksport deputy fire chief Michael Denning said. “We’re looking forward to them getting their facility up and running.”

Currently the closest training facility for fighting fires on land is in Ellsworth and it isn’t practical to bring Bucksport’s fire department’s equipment and staff there, leaving their local station understaffed.

The addition to the professional development center could also help attract more people throughout New England to Bucksport, a town that has been reinventing itself after the paper mill closed and hundreds of people lost their jobs, according to Stewart.

“Any time we can bring folks into town is an absolute help to our businesses,” he said.