Maine’s second-largest senior college program has found a new home in Belfast in time for courses this fall following the loss of its former offices in the closed University of Maine Hutchinson Center.
The college’s new offices will open Sept. 1 at a shared location at 17 Main Street in Belfast, the day that fall course registration begins. Rather than hosting classes in one location as in previous years, courses will now be offered at several places, including St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church, First Church in Belfast, Social Capital, Waterfall Arts and the Belfast Free Library.
For around 20 years, Senior College at Belfast courses had been offered through the Hutchinson Center for learners aged 50 and older from the surrounding region, one of 17 such programs around the state. The sudden announcement earlier this summer that the center would close Aug. 6 led to a scramble as coordinators looked for new space in time for fall.
Around 250 people attended classes there in 2022 during the organization’s first year back to offering in-person programming since COVID-19 hit. In the senior college’s recent newsletter, President Nancy Perkins recognized that the closure came at a particularly bad time for the organization.
“This year will be remembered as the year we thought we were finally returning to normal following the pandemic, only to find another change facing us,” Perkins said. “We remain strong, dedicated and excited about what will surely be a dynamic and vital year.”
There are advantages and disadvantages to the new system, said Karen Gleeson, who manages course curriculums for the senior college. The shift to multiple locations has also meant allowing classes to be spread throughout the week rather than only offering courses on Thursdays, meaning people can take more classes that they’re interested in.
But the change will likely present some challenges for prospective learners, including the lack of dedicated parking spaces at some locations and fewer opportunities to socialize and meet people taking different classes, Gleeson said.
The move is not expected to make a large impact on enrollment numbers this year, but Gleeson said the Hutchinson Center’s closure is another hitch in the road toward reaching pre-pandemic numbers when the Senior College had over 500 active members.
The organization’s volunteer staff are trying to stay optimistic, but the sudden rush to find a new space was “frustrating and took away time that would have otherwise been dedicated to finding and preparing more courses for the fall, Gleeson said.
“We’re just a little discouraged,” she said.
Gleeson pushed back against language in the university’s original announcement of the closure, which said there hadn’t been classes held at the school for three years. While the University of Maine may not have held classes there, the college had been regularly hosting in-person learning at the facility.
Some Belfast community members have opposed the decision to close the center, including members of city government who said they were not given any notice. A citizen group formed with a goal of keeping the facility open for educational programming and events that benefit midcoast residents, though they have not yet met with university officials.
With the center’s future use unclear, Gleeson still hopes that Senior College programming could again be offered at the Hutchinson Center someday.
“It’s all so up in the air, so we’re all doing our best,” she said.