AUGUSTA — The next great business idea very well may be stuck in the head of some high school student here in central Maine.

A proposed new program at Capital Area Technical Center aims to give students the skills to bring those ideas from adolescent dreams to business success.

Even if it doesn’t end up helping the next Bill Gates, Harold Alfond or Mark Zuckerberg earn their first million, proponents said the program will teach students financial and business skills that could make their lives, careers and businesses better.

At the very least, they said, it could teach them how to balance a checkbook.

“I’d argue many of our students aren’t being exposed to business skills at all,” said Michael Duguay, director of development for the city of Augusta. “Certainly they’re never talked to about entrepreneurship — how to create wealth for yourself, your family and your community.

“A couple of generations before us, those conversations were had every night at the dinner table. But we’re not hearing that at the dinner table anymore. For the most part, no one ever told us what the rules of the game are, or how to get better at it. You can’t have entrepreneurs if they don’t start somewhere.”

Duguay said he would like to see entrepreneurial lessons spread throughout Augusta’s schools, then expand and become part of the statewide school curriculum.

Capital Area Technical Center Director Scott Phair said high schools used to have at least a few traditional business courses, such as accounting. But he said most of those courses have been eliminated in budget cuts.

He said he hopes the proposed new Business Careers Academy would fill that gap, but also go considerably beyond.

He and Stephanie Turgeon, student services coordinator, envision a multiple-component program which would include “financial fitness” lessons, teaching things such as balancing a checkbook to all 400 students at the technical center; an on-site financial institution where students could gain real-world banking experience; and entrepreneurial, marketing, management, accounting, business analysis and financial planning courses.

There could be some crossover, he said. For example, a student in the technical center’s automotive technology program could learn not just how to be a good mechanic, but also what to do to open his or her own repair shop.

The courses, Phair said, would lead to successful students receiving professional, nationally recognized certifications or credentials upon completion, as is the case with most CATC programming.

“It’s going to introduce a lot of youngsters to enormous opportunities,” said C. Wayne Mitchell, executive director of the Augusta Board of Trade. “I can’t help but think, a few years from now, if the vision for this program is fulfilled, we’ll have a lot more people thinking they can be an independent businessperson.

“But even if one elects not to, those same skills are essential to working in a business. I think it’s a win across the board.”

Phair said a local financial institution, which he declined to name for now, is “very interested” in having a branch at CATC and being involved in educational programming. A similar proposal in 2007, to have a Maine Education Credit Union branch open in the lobby of CATC, was halted because the zone in which the technical center is located didn’t allow commercial businesses with public access.

Mayor David Rollins said a proposal to ask the Planning Board to consider changing zoning rules to allow a financial institution at CATC, and make a recommendation back to councilors, is on next week’s Augusta City Council agenda.

Hiring a teacher and purchasing supplies for the proposed new business academy would cost about $75,000, according to Superintendent Cornelia Brown. The school budget approved by the Board of Education on March 23 included $75,000 for the business academy.

It was added late in the budget process, Brown said, after board members expressed interest in adding some form of business programming for high school students.

Board of Education member Willie Emerson voted against the school budget because of the late inclusion of the business academy, and a proposed pre-vocational program which was removed from the budget.

Emerson said new programs should be added only after “a thoughtful and deliberate approach. Learning of this eight days before (the board vote) doesn’t give me enough time to ask the questions I need to ask.”

Board Chairman William Burney responded that the program, though new, did already have a structure planned and there were already students interested in taking it.

He added that the state’s funding method for technical centers would reimburse the technical center’s budget for program expenses, in two years.

The school budget must still be approved by the City Council. Phair expressed some concern that the business academy program, because it was a late addition to the budget, could be cut.

Phair said he had planned on starting the program in two years, not next year, but moved it forward after board members expressed interest in starting it next year.

Phair said one catalyst for offering a business program to high school students was Augusta native and Cony graduate Raegan LaRochelle, who volunteered at Cony this year, teaching several students entrepreneurial skills.

Phair also said Gov. Paul LePage’s comments about making Maine a more business-friendly place also help make it a good time to start an entrepreneurial skills program.

The proposed business academy comes on the heels of the creation last year of the Kennebec County Entrepreneurial Network, which includes businesspeople in the Augusta and Waterville areas, as well as Colby College, Thomas College and University of Maine at Augusta.

Duguay said that program is drawing about 100 people every six weeks to entrepreneurial forums.

Duguay said the two programs would “fit hand and glove. If you look at the best sports teams, they’re the ones that start out with a feeder system. Like Single-A or Double-A baseball.”

Local officials hope the technical center program expands to a program instilling business lessons K-12, then that program ultimately becomes a model for the state, and business skills become part of the state’s core educational curriculum.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]