The campus of Unity College, including Tozier Gymnasium and Fitness Center, below a pine tree in Unity. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

UNITY — It is not definite Unity College will sell its main campus, but real estate experts say such a move could open many options.

Questions abound after college officials recently announced a sweeping remake of Unity’s education model — changes they said were accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic.

The changes were sobering for many of the college’s students, alumni, staff and supporters, who gathered in town Saturday to show support for the college. Even local officials said they were shocked.

Melik Peter Khoury, president of the college, said in an interview the potential sale of Unity’s main campus is not imminent. Khoury said repeatedly he does not want to sell the campus, but conceded the decision is not his alone — and is potentially months away.

Melik Peter Khoury became president of of Unity College in 2016. Morning Sentinel file photo

The process of selling the campus would begin with college officials meeting with others to determine “an appropriate optional site,” Khoury said.

These meetings would be followed by discussions with the Maine Department of Education. A firm would then be hired to sell the campus.

“We are never going to be an online school,” Khoury said. “We are going to have to demonstrate how we are going to offer this program, if we do not have 90 Quaker Hill Road,” the location of the college’s main campus.

Unity College, which bills itself as “America’s Environmental College,” owns 225 acres in a area surrounded by woods and a short walk from downtown Unity.

The main campus at 90 Quaker Hill Road has a property assessment of $26,405,100, according to records at the Unity Town Office.

The college also has property in Moose River, New Gloucester, Portland and Thorndike.

Robert Strong, a residential appraiser at PropertyVal in Freeport, thinks the campus property is a likely fit for another college.

“I think it is a difficult commodity to sell,” Strong said. “It’s in a rural part of Maine and, certainly, it’s physically set up to serve as a college, so there are going to be limitations on any future buyer that would use those facilities.”

The college has classrooms, laboratories, nine residence halls, dining halls, a student activities building, Quimby Library, an arts center, an outdoor adventure center, Heritage Livestock Barn and animal room, a soccer field, a cross-country trail and more on its main campus.

Drew Sigfridson, managing director of The Boulos Co., based in Portland, said the commercial real estate firm has “worked on similar projects” but cannot predict what uses the Unity College campus might become. Generally speaking, Sigfridson said, there are many options.

“Our company has worked on other similar projects around the state on a sale-and-lease basis, and sometimes these facilities are attractive to developers seeking to renovate and lease out the buildings for mixed use — office and residential — or alternative uses, like medical and social services,” Sigfridson wrote in an email.

 

SALE EXPLORATION 

Khoury said a decision to sell campus is not his. College officials said they need 650 to 700 students living on-site to keep the campus viable.

Last year, 674 of the college’s 1,208 students utilized the physical campus. According to college officials, between 400 and 425 students are enrolled for the college’s first hybrid term, which begins soon. Officials were unable to offer a projection for the number of students expected on campus in the fall of 2021.

A maintenance worker mows the lawn recently in front of Clifford Hall at Unity College in Unity. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

If students want to pay for room and board at the main campus, Khoury said the college could exist in “perpetuity.” In today’s economic climate, though, waiting to see what happens brings great uncertainty.

Khoury referenced schools such as Mount Ida College, which closed its Newton, Massachusetts, campus and merged with the University of Massachusetts, among a trend of smaller colleges closing.

Other small schools in New England with enrollments similar to Unity’s — including Daniel Webster College in Nashua, New Hampshire, and Newbury College in Brookline, Massachusetts — have closed in recent years.

He cited other colleges that increased discounts to attract students, only to fold later.

Unity will always be at least a hybrid college, Khoury said, and has no plans to close.

“What I want to be able to do is explore, and not have to do it from a position of, ‘Oh, I’m worried someone’s going to find out,'” Khoury said. “I mean, maybe somebody will be so upset from this that they will write me a $1 billion check, so I never have to charge tuition for residential. Maybe families will send their kids here in droves so that we don’t have to shut it down.”

After posting the hybrid plan, “all hell broke loose,” Khoury said.

What transpires over the next few months in relation to the coronavirus pandemic and colleges, including future enrollment for the hybrid model, will influence Unity officials’ decisions.

“Maybe, just maybe, having this conversation is actually in the best interest of the local community and Unity College’s mission, because I would rather have this conversation than just announce — like other colleges — that I’m closing in the spring,” Khoury said.

The hybrid model also can help students save money by being able to live at home.

During a recent interview, Khoury often cited his desire for Unity to put its students first.

There are external factors that “will be a prime determiner of what happens in the future,” Khoury said, adding Unity has no plan to close.

The college’s recent announcement included information on its plan to lay off 15% of its staff as it pursues a hybrid learning model. Officials said this model would give students “control over their education through a nonstandard calendar, shorter terms, differentiated tuition and a multimodality curriculum that does not rely on maintaining a physical campus.”

Because of the pandemic, Unity administrators were already preparing for a decline in students and local revenues due to remote learning and cancellation of the popular Common Ground Country Fair.

While the 2020-21 school year is planned to be fully remote, there is potential for residential experiences for the following year. Unity also has a unique endowment strategy, which began in 2012 after divesting some of its investments. According to a June report, the college’s endowment is worth more than $15.3 million.

The town of Unity itself has no say over what the college becomes.

“Everyone expects to have answers, and we don’t,” said Penny Picard Sampson, a Unity College alumna and chairwoman of the Unity Board of Selectmen.

What would she like to see the campus become, should it be sold?

“I can’t even hazard a guess,” said Picard Sampson, who graduated in 1990. “I have looked at the original deed and it’s pretty clear. It’s like if you sold your house. We have no claim to the college itself.”

Tony Avila, a member of the Unity Board of Selectmen, said if the campus were sold, he would hope it would remain a contributor to the local economy.

“I believe it’s a major part of the local economy — probably 50% is based on it,” Avila said. “I honestly think it will change the dynamics of the town if we don’t have another establishment.”

 

GAUGING INTEREST 

Don Plourde, a broker and the owner of Coldwell Banker Plourde Real Estate in Waterville, said he could see the Unity College property attracting interest from out-of-state buyers.

“Maybe a corporate retreat or something to that effect,” Plourde said. “We are seeing an influx of out-of-state people buying real estate because they can work from anywhere now. I would think there would be good out-of-state interest. People are coming out of the big cities — maybe companies or industries or other schools.”

Phil Trostel, a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Maine, said he has seen some public high schools or other school buildings being sold for a variety of uses, but such sales are not always easy or quick.

“I think it will be a challenge to find a new buyer for the campus,” Trostel said. “I’m a little surprised that they chose that right now. I can’t imagine that it’s a good time to be selling business properties. Maybe it is, but I certainly haven’t heard anything about that.”

One local example, according to Plourde, is the Snow Pond Center for the Arts in Sidney, which established itself five years ago as a charter school that built upon the existing New England Music Camp, off Pond Road on the shore of Messalonskee Lake.

Khoury said no effort has begun toward selling part or all of Unity College’s main campus, and the future will determine what happens.

“I want to get away from the mind of what other colleges that have closed — that they would keep what doesn’t work to the point where the college itself runs out of money, runs out of students, runs out of access and is forced to close,” Khoury said.

“Should there not be enough interest or enough demand for the four-year residential model at 90 Quaker Hill Road, it is on the table. If there is, then it’s not on the table, but I wanted to be transparent.”

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