MEXICO — Ever since Maine's Catholic diocese closed St. Theresa's Catholic Church on Brown Street a few years ago, Jean Kay has searched in vain for a new home for 300 or more college students.
Kay is director of University College at Rumford/Mexico, a University of Maine affiliate that has leased the church's former two-story convent from the diocese for the past 14 years.
The college offers 20 to 22 classes on site this semester via traditional instructors in classrooms, and access to more than 600 courses offered throughout Maine via videoconferencing or the Internet. Classes are held year-round from 7:30 a.m. to 9:45 p.m.
Eighteen months ago, Maine's Catholic diocese put the 17,608-square-foot church at 9 Brown St. on the market for $695,000 and listed the 7,760-square-foot college building at $450,000. Neither has sold, but people have shown interest, Kay said late Wednesday afternoon.
That worried her enough to write to Rumford and Mexico selectmen and town planning boards on Oct. 28, seeking their participation in a community-needs assessment survey for having a college in their communities.
“I'm hoping that between one and three years from now, we will have a good sense of where we're going to be at,” she said.
“We just signed a lease, so I'm hoping that whoever bought it would honor the lease," she said. "If they didn't, we would be in some serious hurt.”
Because the school has been a River Valley asset for so long, she wants to keep it in Rumford or Mexico.
The college needs about 8,900 square feet — either on one floor or two — with elevator access if two stories are leased.
“The building itself has got some difficulties,” Kay said of the former convent.
“We have only one floor that's accessible to disabled students, and so, that's a difficult thing to overcome sometimes," she said. "We really want to be accessible to our students, because we have a number of them that are disabled.”
She's interested in siting it in the River Valley Technology Center behind Dunkin' Donuts in downtown Rumford. The center has yet to renovate its upper two floors, but it has an elevator system.
“That's attractive to me,” Kay said. “I love old buildings for one thing, and unused space is unused space, and I think it would be wonderful to be a part of that part of the community.”
What makes the tech center so attractive are a few of its first-floor tenants, its architecture and the elevator system.
“The CareerCenter is there, and they have a child care center and a dental center, but on the floor above that is this big beautiful open space with very tall ceilings,” Kay said. “It's very beautiful.”
Being in such close proximity to the career and child care centers would be huge, she said, because the CareerCenter sends people to the college who are transitioning from one job to another or are unemployed and seeking new careers.
“I would love to get a child care center, because the barriers some of our students face are just amazing in trying to get child care and go to school if they have more than one class during the week,” she said. “It's pretty challenging to get child care if they don't have family.”
Kay said she's been working with Jim Rinaldo and Phil Blampied of the Rumford Economic Development Committee, trying to work out the possibility of moving the college into the tech center.
That would likely entail the pursuit of grants to renovate one or two floors and increase parking.
At a meeting of Rumford selectmen last Thursday, Selectman Greg Buccina mentioned a college's ability to generate traffic to grow new development.
“I think we should make a concerted effort to go after that — having a college in our community in a nice place and the right spot,” Buccina said. “I think it brings a certain culture."
Despite the attractiveness of the tech center, Kay said she would hate to leave Mexico without giving that town a chance to offer a suitable building to lease.