Officials at Unity College are voicing profound concern over a letter dated March 20 from Nina A. Fisher, Legislative Liaison at the Maine Department of Transportation (MDOT). This letter indicates that MDOT and the Maine Turnpike Authority crafted a sign policy for the Maine Interstate.  This proposed policy, LD 1831, An Act to Allow Signs for Areas of Local, Regional and Statewide Interest on the Interstate System, would remove many signs on the Maine Interstate, including signs for institutions (non-profit and for-profit alike) of secondary and higher learning that are under 1,000 students.

“At a time when Unity College is gaining national exposure for the state of Maine as a leader in sustainability science, our framework for teaching and learning, this bill undermines precisely the type of innovation in rural areas that Maine needs,” noted Dr. Stephen Mulkey, President of Unity College.  “That Unity College is under 1,000 full-time students should not frame this issue.  We are focused on quality, not quantity and that should determine whether or not we have a sign on the Maine Interstate.”

Dr. Don Tuski, President of Maine College of Art, voiced his concern. “From an economic development standpoint, this newly proposed legislation is counter-intuitive,” he said.  “Smaller institutions of higher education in the State of Maine play a significant role in the health of our communities and this proposed law fails to acknowledge this important fact. On behalf of Maine College of Art, we strongly oppose this bill and encourage our State law-makers to go back to the drawing board.”

Officials at Unity College are calling upon designated representatives of Maine colleges and institutions of secondary education with enrollment of under 1,000 students to join with a contingent from Unity College on Tuesday, April 1, 2014 at 1 p.m. in the state Capital in Room 126, to voice opposition to this bill during a public hearing of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee.

Dr. Melik Peter Khoury, Executive Vice President, CFO and Liaison to the Board of Trustees, will deliver the testimony below at the hearing.

Testimony Against LD 1831 By Unity College Representative:

Dr. Melik Peter Khoury
Executive Vice President, CFO
Liaison to the Board of Trustees

CC: Dr. Stephen Mulkey, President

RE: LD 1831, An Act to Allow Signs for Areas of Local, Regional and Statewide Interest on the Interstate System,

April 1, 2014

Capital Building, Room 126 at 1 p.m.

Presented and submitted in writing to the Joint Committee on Transportation

Senator Edward J. Mazurek (D-Knox), Chair
Representative Charles Kenneth Theriault (D-Madawaska), Chair
Senator Edward J. Mazurek (D-Knox), Chair
Senator Linda M. Valentino (D-York)
Senator Ronald F. Collins (R-York)
Representative Charles Kenneth Theriault (D-Madawaska), Chair
Representative Ann E. Peoples (D-Westbrook)
Representative Andrew J. McLean (D-Gorham)
Representative Christine B. Powers (D-Naples)
Representative Arthur C. Verow (D-Brewer)
Representative R. Wayne Werts (D-Auburn)
Representative Wayne R. Parry (R-Arundel)*
Representative James S. Gillway (R-Searsport)
Representative Robert W. Nutting (R-Oakland)
Representative Beth P. Turner (R-Burlington)

Good afternoon Senator Mazurek, Representative Theriault and members of the Joint Committee on Transportation. I am here to testify against LD 1831, An Act to Allow Signs for Areas of Local, Regional and Statewide Interest on the Interstate System.

My name is Dr. Melik Peter Khoury, Executive Vice President, CFO and Liaison to the Board of Trustees at Unity College, commonly known as America’s Environmental College. I am here to express profound concern over LD 1831. If passed this bill would remove many signs on the Maine Interstate, including signs for secondary institutions and institutions of higher learning that are under 1,000 students.

Aside from raising the question of the basic wisdom of such an initiative, I point to the adverse economic consequences of this potentially damaging bill. This bill represents an affront to the important contributions of Maine’s small colleges and secondary institutions, and is a poignant threat to their future prosperity.

Unity College was founded in 1965 by area townspeople in part as a response to the MDOT’s decision to bypass the town completely when constructing the Maine Interstate.  The founding of a college was seen by our founders as a means of creating economic opportunity and sparking innovation in the region.

We have grown into a borderless entity that issues graduates forth to pursue environmental careers across the United States and the globe.  We are one of the largest revenue generating employers from Waterville to Belfast. In addition to receiving a $10 million donation in 2010, Unity College’s capital improvement and building projects surpassed that sum.

Tuition revenue from out-of-state students alone is approximately $6.5 million-a-year.  The tally increases exponentially when one considers that on average, each out-of-state student receives two to three visits per academic year from their family. Those families support hotels, restaurants, gas stations, and many other types of businesses.  Finally, out-of-state students spend dollars throughout the year supporting Maine’s economy. They rent apartments off campus, purchase groceries, have their vehicles serviced, and so much more.  The Unity College sign on the Maine Interstate is critically important not just as an initial convenience, but as a representation of the stature and importance of this institution.

Returning to the economic side of this argument, I would note that Unity College’s financial impact is significantly greater than a simple tally of full-time students.  Currently, we are building a multi-million dollar residence hall, and are planning construction of a $7 – $10 million sustainability science and conference center.  To remove the interstate sign not only raises a series of transportation related concerns, but clearly stigmatizes Maine’s institutions of higher learning that are under 1,000 full-time students.  We anticipate that when our center is complete, it will draw revenue generating groups from across the United States, and house research scientists who may in turn contribute to Maine’s economic growth.

Even a very basic examination of traffic flow through this region points to a larger picture that indicts the premises of the bill. For instance, the Unity College traffic generation pattern to the region include its new research facility in Thorndike, the Half-Moon Gardens Research Station, concerts and events at the Unity College Center for the Performing Arts on Depot Street in Unity, the Field of Dreams on Route 202 in Unity, and close association with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), also in Unity.  The latter organization brings in approximately 70,000 visitors for the Common Ground Country Fair each September.

At a time when rural economic development in Maine is critically important and should be nurtured, this proposed bill punishes institutions situated in rural areas of a significantly rural state based on an arbitrary distance from the interstate and head count.  The measure should be economic and social impact, along with knowledge generation.

Higher and secondary educational institutions are providing the spark and leadership to improve Maine’s short and long-term economic fortunes, this potentially damaging bill is the wrong initiative at the wrong time.  It is also counter intuitive.  Rural institutions that are a distance from the interstate have the greatest need for directional signs on the Maine Interstate.  They also tend to be primary economic drivers for rural areas of the state.

Thank you for this opportunity.

Friday, March 28, 2014