Heather King, head of school at the Maine Arts Academy, is seen Wednesday at the former Maine Veterans Home in Augusta. The academy plans to move from his current Sidney location to the Augusta facility next fall. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — The Maine Arts Academy, Maine’s free public charter high school focused on an arts curriculum, is looking to move from Sidney to the former Maine Veterans’ Home on Cony Road in Augusta.

About 225 students from across the state, along with 30 faculty and other staff members, would occupy the vacant former residential care facility, converting it into classrooms and space for students to perform and display their art.

The move hinges on the Maine Charter School Commission, which oversees the state’s public charter schools, approving the academy’s request to borrow money to buy the building and move to Augusta, which the commission is scheduled to review in November.

The Augusta Planning Board approved the proposal to repurpose the former Maine Veterans’ Home, vacant since the home moved last year to a new facility adjacent to MaineGeneral Medical Center, in a 5-0 vote Tuesday night.

Heather King, head of school for the academy, said it has outgrown its space at the Snow Pond Center for the Arts in Sidney and hopes to expand at the Augusta site. She said the move could eventually include construction of a dormitory to house students.

King said the school does not plan to alter the exterior of its new building, and the only major inside work would involve tearing down walls to make way for bigger classrooms. She said school officials hope to move in June, in time for the next school year.


King said it would be to the school’s advantage to own its building, compared with their current rental arrangement at the Sidney property, which also hosts concerts and other events and is shared with the New England Music Camp.

“It’s a good location for us. It has a lot to offer,” King said of the former nursing home site in Augusta. “We’re really excited. We’re looking to collaborate with people, and our school is not there to compete with other schools.

The former Maine Veterans Home on Cony Road in Augusta is seen Wednesday. There is a proposal for the Maine Arts Academy to relocate there from Sidney. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“We’re here to offer what we can offer that might be different from what somebody else is offering. It will be nice to have a safe, large building where we have space to be creative.”

“To me, it’s something I’m very happy to see in the state of Maine, and I’m very happy to see it come to Augusta” said Augusta Planning Board member Bob Corey. “It can help our downtown, our theater and UMA — those types of areas. I’m looking forward to that.”

Corey said his son, an artist in high school, found after leaving Maine he was at a disadvantage compared to students from states that had arts-focused high schools.

King said the 7-year-old arts academy already has partnerships in Augusta and shares some faculty with the University of Maine at Augusta. It also has a staff member who is director of the Gaslight Theater in Hallowell, and has a relationship with the Boys & Girls Club of Augusta. Further, the academy seeks to collaborate more with others in the community, including with the Colonial Theater being renovated in downtown Augusta.


City officials and one local resident expressed concern about additional traffic to and from the site, especially at peak morning hours when students would be coming to school there as commuters also travel to work.

The move is not expected to increase the amount of traffic beyond the threshold that would require a full traffic movement permit, but King said the school hopes to expand and seek such a permit from the state Department of Transportation.

Martha Witham, a Spring Street resident, said she is concerned about the impact on traffic, pointing out Cony Road is narrow and was the site of a three-pedestrian fatal crash last year, and that the access road to the Capital Area Recreation Association’s many youth athletic fields abuts the property.

King said the academy transports students on five buses to its school from regional bus pickup sites across Maine, which limits the number of parents dropping off or picking up students, and students driving to school.

“For a high school,” she said, “we really have minimal traffic because our students come from so far off.”

Parents and students pass through the Maine Arts Academy during the walk through Harvest Recital at the academy in Sidney on Oct. 30, 2020. The academy is set to relocate to a new spot in Augusta. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file

Board members made their vote in favor of allowing the project conditional on the academy having a traffic impact study done and approved by the city engineer.


City Engineer Tyler Pease said the city plans to install a sidewalk on Cony Road, from New England Road to the Capital Area Recreation Complex and the new Maine Arts Academy site.

“Probably by this time next year, unless anything crazy happens, we’ll have the pedestrian connectivity,” Pease said of the planned new sidewalk.

A study found the new use of a school would actually bring less total traffic to the site than its former use as a nursing home, with 438 weekday trips expected as a school, compared with 466 as a nursing home. The change, however, would increase traffic during the peak morning commuting hour, from 29 as a nursing home to 117 as a school.

King said the academy has the property under contract with Maine Veterans’ Homes.

That was bad news to Tim Cheney, founder of Enso Recovery, a drug rehabilitation provider with sober residences on Western Avenue in Augusta that also helps inmates in recovery at the Kennebec County Correctional Facility through its treatment program.

Cheney said he had hopes of seeing the property reused as a drug rehabilitation facility to address the dire shortage of medical beds for rehabilitation and provide much-needed residential rehabilitation space.


He said there are now 15 medical beds for rehabilitation in the entire state, and waiting lists to get into treatment can take six weeks to two months. He also said those in need of help could end up incarcerated or even die from an overdose while waiting for a space.

The former veterans’ home would have been an ideal site, Cheney said, and he understood a mental health services organization had been looking at buying it. Cheney said had he known the facility was available, his organization would have bought it.

The former Maine Veterans Home on Cony Road in Augusta is seen Wednesday. There is a proposal for the Maine Arts Academy to relocate there from Sidney. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“I love the arts and I have season tickets to the theater; however, a medical facility that is ideally suited, with all the (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance issues already addressed, could literally take care (of the need for space) so there would be no waiting lists anymore,” Cheney told Planning Board members. “That would help to address the problem we have in the state of Maine. And this is the first venue I’ve seen like this, that is literally turnkey.”

Corey said he appreciated Cheney’s comments, but said they were not related to the arts academy proposal before the board Tuesday. Corey suggested Cheney talk to real estate agents and city officials.

The charter school is a nonprofit organization that, under state law, is exempt from paying property taxes.

The Maine Veterans’ Home at the site was built in 1983, with an expansion in 2003. It has nearly 70,000 square feet of space and sits on 9 acres. The facility had 150 beds in five wings. An auditorium there would be expanded to accommodate performances to the public, according to application materials.

King said future plans could include converting a wing of the facility into 30 private bedrooms as a dormitory for students.

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