Stonecoast MFA may soon be out of a house

 Faculty and students of the Stonecoast MFA Program for creative writing take a lunch break in one of their week-long residencies, which faculty and alumni describe as one of the more rewarding parts of the program. There are two residencies per year as a part of the program, which involve intensive workshopping at peer-editing sessions.
Courtesy of Stonecoast MFA Program
Faculty and students of the Stonecoast MFA Program for creative writing take a lunch break in one of their week-long residencies, which faculty and alumni describe as one of the more rewarding parts of the program. There are two residencies per year as a part of the program, which involve intensive workshopping at peer-editing sessions.

Posted on April 21, 2014 in News
By Sidney Dritz

Randy Hazelton | The Free Press

One of USM’s most prestigious pieces of architecture may have reached the point where it’s more trouble than it’s worth to the university, according to a recent University of Maine System maintenance report.

When President Kalikow announced her first round of proposed cuts in February, one of the considered cuts was the Stone House, home of the Stonecoast MFA program for creative writing, the Stonecoast Writers’ Conference and a Book Arts Conference directed by Rebecca Goodale each summer.

According to Chief Financial Officer Dick Campbell, the Stonehouse costs significantly more money than it brings in.

“The Stone House and the MFA program are two different things,” said Campbell in an interview with the Free Press last week. “You could have those at another location.”
English Professor Nancy Gish, who directed the Provost’s Writing Seminar at the Stone House for thirteen of the program’s fourteen years, has a different perspective that relates to the importance of the Stone House for the programs it houses. “In my judgement, it was one of the most important parts of the [Provost’s Writing Seminar] program,” Gish said of the house.

2013 Stone Coast MFA graduate Karla Fossett agreed. “I think that the program relies on the house –– the house is where everything happens,” Fossett said.

The Stone House, which was designed by John Calvin Stevens in 1918, is one of the oldest buildings owned by USM, and was, at the time that the UMaine system commissioned a report on building conditions from Sightline, which was delivered in January, 2014, one of three buildings with the highest deferred maintenance and renovation costs per square foot.
The report, said Campbell, was presented before last summer’s series of renovations, making the Stone House the property with the most outstanding costs required to maintain it.
“The Maine system has an aging campuses [sic] with more space in high risk categories than peers. This means that life cycles of many building components are at or past their useful life,” read the Sightlines report, compiled by Jim Kadamus and Emily Morton.

Fossett cited the house’s historical nature and atmosphere as assets to the program. “I always felt really lucky to be able to work in this place that has such historical significance,” she said.

Fossett also described the Stone House as the heart of the MFA program, and explained that students taking part in the program live and do most of their work in various locations, often from a distance, and that the natural beauty and isolation of the location creates an important atmosphere during the workshop periods where the students are together.
Amanda Pleau, another recent Stone Coast graduate, said something similar. “it’s a little bit lonely,” she said of the scattered nature of the students between workshops, “but then we get to the residency and it’s like summer camp.”

According to Campbell, discussions are underway about what to do with the property. “It could be on a historical register, it’s not now,” said Campbell. He said the building might be sold, or converted to a different use by a new owner.

“There are times you might not sell it for a profit as much as for eliminating the cost of using it,” said Campbell. According to Campbell, the cost of operating the Stone House comes to $45,000 per year on top of the money the university receives from the programs which use it. This cost is the minimum needed for limited use, and does not include deferred maintenance costs, including repairs to the sewage system, well and water system, slate roofs, boilers and heating, and the hazardous abatement material necessary to make those repairs. There are also costs associated with meeting various codes the Stone House currently does not meet, like electric codes and ADA compliance.

“We’re fighting it,” said current Stone Coast MFA program director Justin Tussing. Tussing told the Free Press he has attended meetings with the president, the provost and Dean Kuzma of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

When asked about the maintenance costs, Tussing said, “From where I’m standing I don’t think that it’s necessary to do that all at once, but I don’t think administration see the numbers in the same way I do.”

Tussing suggested that one way to bridge the gap between the money brought in by the Stone House and the costs required to maintain it would be to reach out to other groups in the area to share the space and form creative partnerships.

“We’re really problem solving right now, but I’m encouraged, frankly, with how responsive Theo and Michael have been,” Tussing said.

When asked when a conclusion about the fate of the Stone House might be reached, Campbell said, “I would hope we would make some decisions in the next few months.”