The Hutchinson Center sign located on Route 3 in Belfast. The center closed Aug. 4, less than two months after the sudden announcement it would be shutting down. Credit: Braeden Waddell / BDN

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Jim Patterson was the first executive director of the University of Maine Hutchinson Center. Larry Theye was a professor at the center and lives in Belfast. Judith Stein is a professional business communications and lead fundraiser and lives in Belfast. Kim Fleming is executive director of Waterfall Arts in Belfast. Mike Hurley is a former mayor and current city councilor in Belfast. They are members of the Future of the Belfast Hutchinson Center steering committee.

What is deeply flawed with the recent announcement by the University of Maine?

Just 23 years after a visionary gift to Belfast and the University of Maine, the primary beneficiary of the gift recently announced the University of Maine Hutchinson Center would be closed and sold.

To understand why the closing and proposed sale of the University Maine Hutchinson Center has caused so much upset for Belfast and area residents, one must understand the history of the Hutchinson Center and the personal stake of the Belfast area.

The Hutchinson Center originated in an agreement between Charles Cawley, the visionary MBNA CEO, and University of Maine President Fred Hutchinson to build an educational facility through which the university would bring classes and programs to residents of Midcoast Maine. The center was built and financially supported by MBNA.

Built on the site of a former chicken farm, the Hutchinson Center opened in 2000 under the directorship of Dr. Jim Patterson and was an immediate success. Participation and enrollment were robust, statewide conferences found a mid-state location, special events flourished, and the center was soon  self supporting. Opportunities for education and advancement for Belfast area residents were lifted dramatically.

But things had to change with MBNA transitioning to Bank of America ownership and the retirement of Charles Cawley. The new owners, with many sprawling Maine properties, sought to divest themselves of real estate, and with the urging of center supporters, BOA gifted the center to UMaine in 2006 with the expectation that courses would be offered at the Hutchinson Center.

The goal of MBNA and the University of Maine was to provide a degree program for the regional area of Belfast. The center was built to be expanded and initially contained no laboratories or science classrooms. Community leaders, with the pledge of support by the university to establish a nursing program, raised the funds to build the new wing onto the center.

UMaine began offering on-line courses as an alternative to in-classroom instruction. Within a few years, in-person classes at the center were no longer offered. Luckily the University of Maine at Augusta stepped in to offer a nursing program. The needs of the community are strong.

Over the years, local donors, including the City of Belfast, who had donated generously to the construction of the new wing, were let down by the lack of support from the university.

All along the center has been a vibrant and busy host to local and statewide conferences, events, Senior College classes, and more.

We believe the recent announcement that UMaine plans to close and sell the Hutchinson Center was the final act of bad faith by the university. The Hutchinson Center still has strong local support despite the lack of course offerings. Senior College, one of the largest and most successful in Maine, remains active; events and conferences are still committed to the center.

The Hutchinson Center exists because of the great generosity and vision of Charles Cawley and MBNA as well as Bank of America. Their gift to Belfast and the region was welcomed and supported by significant local fund raising, scholarship sponsorships, and other gifts which made the Hutchinson Center the facility it is today.

The proposal by the university to sell the center is unacceptable. We believe the university’s actions constitute a breach of ethics. We think the honorable course of action is to return this gift to the community.

We are planning to invite the community to get involved. Please join us.