The MSAD 28 School Board voted against an offer by real estate developer Michael Mullins to repurpose the Mary E. Taylor building on Knowlton Street in Camden.

The fate of the 1920s brick structure has been a divisive issue in the community over the past several months, as citizens have voiced concerns about the possible demolition of the structure in preparation for building the new Camden-Rockport Middle School, stating that the building has aesthetic and historic significance and should be preserved. If it remains, others have worried what private uses within its walls would be appropriate given its proximity to the new school.

Mullins, who is the president of Boston-based Mullins Management Inc., presented his vision for the building at a public meeting of the School Board on Jan. 10. Prior to Mullins' presentation, the School Board voted to have their lawyer, Dick Spencer, of the Portland-based law firm Drummond Woodsum, conduct the public comment portion of the meeting. Representatives from Oak Point Associates, the design firm tasked with designing the new middle school, were also present to hear Mullins' proposal.

Referred to as "Camden Workplace L3C," Mullins described creating a learning center for craftspeople in the community who could attend classes or rent space in the building to pursue trades such as metal working, wood working and specialty courses such as robotics and fiber arts.

Mullins, who has worked on redevelopment projects recently in Rockland as well as created successful learning centers in New England, said that Camden Workplace L3C would be a semi-profit organization. "L3C" refers to a Vermont designation for low profit, limited liability corporation. He said that the classes would be offered at both adult and youth levels, anticipating children from the community attending workshops after school hours or on weekends.

In addition, the organization would offer some educational programs which may include studies in entrepreneurship and fundamental and junior courses. One such course for younger students would be "Junior CSR," a study of computer solar robotics, and would give pupils an opportunity to take apart and rebuild electronics. Mullins said that he had observed successful electronic "repair cafes" in the community, and said that one such facility could be housed in Camden Workspace.

“I want to get kids to put their hands on things and stop thinking about the disposable consumer economy, and see how things work," said Mullins, who said that the MET building offered plenty of room to provide storage for all the different types of equipment, project and workshop space necessary to the classes, as well as the inclusion of a computer, solar and robotics lab.

In the proposal submitted to the School Board on Nov. 30, Mullins estimated making an investment of $780,000 in the project, which would involve renovating the existing classrooms and creating a new entryway to the building. The end of November also marked a deadline set by the School Board for any proposal for the MET building, which may save it from demolition when the rest of the existing middle structure is removed to create the new CRMS.

Mullins referred to “lateral learning” as one of the driving concepts behind his proposal, which would house metal working, wood working, a junior workshop, 3-D/prototyping, an office and a gallery on the first floor of the building. The second floor would include a large co-working, assembly space which would require demolishing a number of walls, and result in a series of cubicles and partitions arranged to fit up to 100 people. A cafe, a library or archive room, and a flexible work space would also be located on this level.

In addition to removing existing walls to extend classroom space, Mullins proposed adding a loading area and a dumpster at the rear of the building, along with a loading dock so that metal and wood could be easily removed or delivered to the site. He also presented renderings of a new glass "store front" entryway which would provide access to the building on Knowlton Street.

With an anticipated occupation date of 2020, Mullins said that the minimum amount of work required to secure the building would be to outfit it with new electrical and heating systems; when the remaining middle school structure is torn down, the MET structure will be left without power and heat.

Mullins proposed installing a pellet-fired boiler using existing Hydronic heat, as well as new electrical service to the main panel. He said that the primary programming needs for classes at Camden Workspace would be FF&E (furniture, fixtures and equipment) for the primary and co-working workshops, the construction of the entry vestibule and the loading area, as well as information technology and administrative components.

“I've done a couple of walk-throughs so far and I'm impressed with the condition of the building and the School Board has done an excellent job of taking care of it….those needs are so critical for the school to go forward with the construction project today and to "delete" the demolition of [MET], what the school has to know is that when it's time to take [the rest of the middle school] down, that someone is there with the funds to complete the scope of work needed to keep the building stand-alone," said Mullins.

The governance of the organization would be divided among a Board of Directors who would be responsible for soliciting co-founders and seeking donations to support the project. Mullins said that donations could range from cash to "in kind" donations of equipment for the programs. He said his goal was to have local, community citizens serve as co-founders. Mullins said that in the first year he anticipated serving as the organization's initial executive director, and would be hiring a part-time manager and safety officers required for the machinery and classes offered on site.

Camden Workspace L3C would operate on a membership basis, where students or tradespeople could pay for the number of classes or the amount of time each month they planned to use the facility.

“In order to get the collaboration we envision – lots of different tradespeople, kids coming in…we want to make the memberships as affordable as possible, and our goal is to have memberships in the hundreds," said Mullins, who added that rather than seeking financing from a bank, he hoped to have people in the community invest directly in the organization.

After his presentation, several members of the public reacted to the idea of Camden Workspace L3C, some of them acknowledging possible benefits to repurposing the facility under Mullins' vision.

"Being in masonry, I would love a particular hub, an organization like this where I could direct some of my resources — both with my skills and with money in the form of scholarships — to encourage kids in the trades and fostering ever more relevant skill sets," said Patrick McCafferty of Camden.

"This is a really wonderful project because it's preserving the building. The building was built for educational purposes, and this is continuing with those uses," said Camden architect Chris Fasoldt, who also serves on the town's  Resources Committee.

A following discussion between the School Board and Mullins focused on the possible leasing agreement by the School District to have Camden Workspace L3C operate into the future, and the ownership of the property on which the MET building sits, versus the ownership of the structure itself. The board also raised concerns regarding how the work at the MET could impact the construction timeline on the new $26 million middle school, and its anticipated opening date of September, 2020.

"We have a very specific timeline, we have very specific goals that we're trying to work on, and all of this has been the result of hundreds of man hours, so it is frightening for somebody to say, 'if you change something, it's going to result in months and months of delay.' I don't want to be in a situation where that is a possibility at all," said School Board Chairman Matt Dailey.

"We are elected to run schools and to do the best we can for kids. Although this [proposal] sounds very interesting, I worry that it is taking from the focus of what we are here to do, which is to maintain a good school for our kids. We're not in the business of historic preservation, we're not in the business of economic development," said Vice Chair Lynda Chilton.

Board member Pete Orne said that although he admired work Mullins had conducted on other properties, he felt that Camden Workspace as proposed was a "good use," but not the best possible use of the MET building. Orne said he felt that in the future the school system itself may need to use space within the facility. Board members Elizabeth Noble, Becky Flanagan and Carole Gartley said that they weren't comfortable disregarding the proposal by Mullins.

"I think that we should continue the discussion, keeping in mind that it cannot affect the timeline [of the new school], that is a deal breaker. The primary importance is the education and the building of the new school, but I'm not prepared to shut the door on this at this time," said Noble.

Following the discussion, Dailey moved that the Mullins proposal be declined and that the Superintendent, Maria Libby, who was also present at the meeting, notify him of the Board's decision. Prior to a vote, Orne said he would encourage Libby to consider incorporating aspects of the proposal into a future plan for MET. Board member Marcia Dietrich asked Orne if he would approach Dailey to amend the motion to include this language; Dailey said he would not.

Prior to a vote being taken on Dailey's initial motion, Dietrich then moved that the motion be amended to "allow the [school] district to continue discussing other options with Mr. Mullins that might be in the district's interest." The amendment passed by a majority vote, having only been opposed by Dailey and Chilton.

The MSAD 28 School Board will meet again on Jan. 17 in the Washington Street Conference Room in Camden at 7 p.m.  A joint workshop meeting of the MSAD 28 and Five Town CSD boards will be held on Jan. 29 from 4 to 7 p.m. at a location to be determined.