ELLSWORTH — City officials are seeking a member of the public to be part of a steering committee tasked with looking at the future of Hancock County Technical Center (HCTC).
In May, councilors approved spending $150,000 for a feasibility study that would look at either renovating or replacing the Boggy Brook Road building, but a request for proposals for the study has not yet been sent out.
At a joint meeting of the School Board and City Council on Monday evening, officials laid out the beginning of the process, which includes forming the committee that will be tasked in part with drawing up that request for proposals and evaluating those proposals once they come in.
The committee will consist of seven members: one citizen (chosen via an application process), two members from the City Council, two members of the Ellsworth School Board and two members from the nonprofit Ellsworth Business Development Corp. (EBDC).
Officials are also interested in having a student participate as an observer. They plan to solicit for applications in the coming week.
The Ellsworth Business Development Corp. is a quasi-municipal but independent nonprofit that approached members of the School Department to ask if EBDC could help raise money to renovate or replace the school.
The steering committee will not be a decision-making body, but will instead bring its plans and recommendations to the council and school officials.
School officials say they have been frustrated with the 40-year-old building’s limitations for some time. Modern diesel trucks are too large to fit within some of the bays. Space is cramped — the culinary arts program lacks a classroom and meets in the cafeteria (when it isn’t being used for other classes). Room to improve and add programs to adapt to a changing job market is limited. And yet the region’s need for skilled trade workers is growing.
The state has a pool of money for major capital construction projects (Sumner Memorial High School was recently awarded funds to build a new high school), but there is no guarantee a district will get funding and the process takes years. Regional School Unit 24 (RSU 24) officials applied during the 2010-2011 cycle and will likely not break ground on the new building until next year.
Ellsworth school officials applied for funding to renovate or replace HCTC during the 2017-2018 cycle. The school made the state’s priority list, ranking 18th out of 74 schools, according to the Department of Education.
But EBDC members thought there might be a faster way to update the building rather than waiting for state funding, and approached school officials to see what other options were available.
The plans are in their infancy, stressed officials on Monday evening, meaning it’s too soon to tell what the project will be and how it will be funded. Those are questions the feasibility study is designed to answer.
“That is not the headline out of this meeting, that the Ellsworth taxpayers are going to foot the bill for a $30 million project,” said Councilor Dale Hamilton, responding to a question from Chairman Marc Blanchette regarding how the city would ultimately fund a renovation or reconstruction.
“I’m absolutely committed to not putting the burden of the cost on Ellsworth taxpayers,” Hamilton said.
“If we just start with the opinion that all of a sudden we’re going to raise taxes to pay for a building,” he continued, “We’re really distorting the message.”
“We do need to move ahead,” agreed Councilor John Phillips. “We need to move on this feasibility study and see what the options are for us in the future.”
Councilor Gary Fortier agreed, adding “This project is so huge, it will have to go to referendum. The people will have the last voice.”
Officials said they hope to have the steering committee roster finalized within the next few weeks and have a request for proposals out within the next few months.
“We took this out of the state process to gain speed and to shorten up the anticipated delivery,” said John Fitzpatrick, board chairman of EBDC and senior director for facilities services at The Jackson Laboratory.
“We need to establish a schedule and challenge ourselves to make that schedule work.”