BANGOR — University of Maine System buildings are underutilized compared to similar public universities, and backlogged maintenance for its aging facilities could cost more than $400 million, according to a facilities consultant.
The seven-campus system’s finance, facilities and technology committee heard a report from the consultant, Sightlines, on Feb. 14. Sightlines is paid $107,000 annually to evaluate the system’s facilities and provide campus-specific analyses.
“Maine has had less money to invest to actually renovate buildings” compared to other public universities, said Jim Kadamus, vice president of Sightlines. The report said that 40 percent of the University of Maine System space has not been renovated in 50 years or more, which is up from 30 percent in 2009.
“Many of these buildings should have been renovated 10 to 15 years ago,” said Kadamus.
University of Maine System Chancellor James Page, in response to the report, said the system will act.
“We feel an urgency because of the overall financial challenges that we have,” Page said recently. He wants the university system to “focus our investments so that where we are able to make investments, they’re really going to get a major return for our students.”
Many of the aging buildings on the University of Maine System campuses were built in the 1950s and ‘60s to accommodate student enrollment after the inauguration of the GI bill in 1944, Page said. Those facilities are passing the 50-year mark, while the student population in the University of Maine System is declining and the number of students taking classes online is increasing.
The system needs to reduce the size of its building infrastructure by 15 percent, or increase its student population by 4,000, for the ratio of square footage to population to be on par with other public higher education institutions also evaluated by Sightlines.
The Sightlines report was released amid difficult financial times for the University of Maine System. On Friday, University of Maine at Orono President Paul Ferguson sent an email to employees warning of impending budget cuts affecting the Orono campus. Ferguson stated in his email that the University of Maine System is facing a $36 million budget shortfall in fiscal year 2015.
Sightlines identified buildings on each campus that have low utilization, are of poor condition and “less historical” as good candidates for removal.
There are 28 buildings that fit that criteria at the University of Southern Maine, 18 at the University of Maine at Orono, 12 at the University of Maine at Farmington, 10 at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, four at the University of Maine at Augusta and one each at the University of Maine at Machias and the University of Maine at Presque Isle.
Not all the buildings were named in the report.
The structures listed ranged from historical-looking buildings, such as the Stone House at the University of Southern Maine and the Sigma Chi Heritage House at the University of Maine at Orono to utilitarian buildings like the heating plant at the University of Maine at Orono.
Those buildings will not necessarily be demolished, according to multiple university officials interviewed for this story.
“The Sightlines report is a guide,” said University of Maine at Orono vice president for administration and finance Janet Waldron, who also serves on the facilities review team.
The Sigma Chi Heritage House is a good example of a building that serves an important need upon further review by people on the ground, she said.
The building houses offices for 23 staff members who work in development, as well as a large gathering space, which is used to meet with potential donors, Waldron said.
An environmental sciences lab was also listed in the report, which Waldron said necessarily does not see as much traffic as a lecture hall, for example.
The report showed that, until this year, the University of Maine System spent well below average on maintaining existing space. In 2010, the University of Maine System spent less than $2 per square foot on existing space, though comparable public universities spent an average of close to $5 per square foot on existing space.
Waldron said Murray Hall, which houses the biological sciences department, is an example of a building that would be more cost effective to demolish than to refurbish. She said the building is more than 50 years old.
In 2013, however, the system invested in existing space at an appropriate rate, by Sightlines standards.
Waldron attributed that improvement to a series of renovation and demolition projects. She acknowledged that had the projects taken place sooner, they might have been less expensive.
Part of University Park, a housing complex at the University of Maine at Orono, was demolished in 2013 because the buildings were in such poor condition, she said. In the same year, Nutting Hall, the 46-year-old home of the School of Forest Resources received a $3.75 million renovation.
The University of Maine at Orono also consolidated five dining spaces into three. One of the former dining spaces was Stewart Dining Commons, a building that received an $11 million makeover and conversion to a state-of-the-art media and art center, Waldron said.
“It takes time, and we still have a lot to tackle,” Waldron said of the university’s efforts to consolidate and refurbish space.
In the fall of 2013, two teams of administrators and trustees were formed: one to review how facilities are currently managed and another to develop a long-term plan for how they will be managed going forward.
These teams, in a separate report to the committee, echoed the Sightlines conclusion.
“The University of Maine System today has a seriously aging facility portfolio and more space than it needs for the current and projected size of its total user community,” the teams said.
Over the next three months, members of the review teams will visit each of the seven campuses to speak with presidents, staff and students about the use of system real estate.
The teams will make recommendations to the board of trustees on how to address the low ratio of square footage to population and the aging facilities by June 2015, according to Ryan Low, executive director of governmental and external affairs and a co-chair of each of the teams.
University of Maine System trustees will set high-level goals to address recommendations that the review teams put forward. Administrators at individual campuses will work with the system to meet those goals, Page said.
“We think we can deliver the same quality and comprehensive education with less of a foot print than we have today,” said Karl Turner, a member of both the University of Maine System board of trustees and the team tasked with creating a long-term plan for managing facilities.
Page also emphasized that the solutions will look different on every campus and will combine strategies for increasing enrollment and decreasing square footage.
And he said it will happen.
“This isn’t something we’re going to study for three years and then figure out what to do,” said Page.