U.S. Senator Susan Collins visited the Augusta Colonial Theater to see the plans for renovations and expansions made possible by the $1.5 million grant she secured in December as part of the Fiscal Year 2023 Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill. (Photo courtesy of Senator Susan Collins)
On April 4, U.S. Senator Susan Collins, R-Maine, and vice chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, visited the 110-year-old Augusta Colonial Theater to see the plans for renovations and expansions made possible by the $1.5 million grant she secured in December as part of the Fiscal Year 2023 Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill.
First opened in 1913, the theater had previously been closed and vacant since 1969, falling into disrepair for several decades until it was saved from demolition. It has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2014.
The grant is allowing for the renovation of the 1,000-seat theater, and the construction of an attached two-level auxiliary building that has expanded restrooms, adequate water supply systems, additional HVAC systems, a 200-seat multipurpose community theater and space for classrooms and galleries. The upgrades will make the venue wheelchair accessible.
On the top floor, overlooking the Kennebec River, there will be an income-producing restaurant to provide self-sufficiency.
"Cultural institutions are part of the fabric of communities and enrich the lives of Mainers," Collins said in a statement. "Securing this grant has made it possible for the Colonial Theater to reestablish itself as a lively cultural center in the heart of Augusta for generations to come."
Besides offering an array of exciting events such as live performances, concerts, lectures, international streaming performances and serving as the new home of the Kennebec Performing Arts (formerly the Augusta Symphony Orchestra), plans are under way to expand the existing Youth Theater and introduce a Senior Theater, both of which would make use of the newly enlarged rehearsal and performance spaces.
Collins Frustrated With New Houlton Border Station Delays
Northern Maine's proposed new U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) station in Houlton has been put on hold after the needed funds were instead re-allocated to a facility at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The Portland Daily News reported April 3 that in an eleventh-hour decision prompted by increased building costs, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in late March halted construction of the new security checkpoint on the U.S.-Canada border, which was to start this spring, to redirect funding to a new southern border station in Laredo, Texas.
Sen. Collins said during a recent U.S. Senate Committee on Appropriations hearing that the delay means the 40 Houlton-based CBP agents and one support staff member will continue working in substandard conditions for five more years until new appropriations are available and construction is completed.
Alejandro Mayorkas, secretary of the DHS, diverted almost all of the $35 million appropriated for the new Houlton Station to an air facility in Laredo that recently broke ground, Collins added.
Houlton-based agents cover 98 mi. of international border with the Canadian province of New Brunswick, an area that includes 5,509 sq. mi. of forest and agricultural land. They are crammed into a station with multiple deficiencies, jeopardizing staff health and safety, and putting surrounding communities at risk because of inefficiencies, according to a CPB Services 2022 report on the proposed Maine facility.
The federal agency recently found that the cost of constructing the Houlton CPB station had nearly doubled due to inflation and supply chain issues and would now cost $66 million, Collins said, resulting in the funds to be sent to the new Texas station, a project which has also faced increased construction costs.
The CPB retained $3 million in funding for Houlton to acquire the land for the new station, and a portion was used for planning, design, environmental and feasibility studies.
"U.S. Border Patrol allocates resources as needed to address competing priorities and mitigate financial shortages," Ryan Brissette, a CBP spokesperson, said April 3. "While the project, as planned, may be stalled, the safety of agents and professional staff, as well as that of those in our custody, will continue to be addressed."
Brissette did not explain to the Portland news source how the agency would address those issues.
During the earlier appropriations committee meeting, Collins told Mayorkas that she recently learned of the decision to stop the construction of the Houlton facility from local officials, and asked Mayorkas to reconsider his decision, citing the urgency of the matter.
"The facility is in need of replacement due to annual flooding, toxic black mold, and contaminated well water. It has a host of problems," she said. "I'm concerned that the funds that we previously appropriated for fiscal year '22 were repurposed. It's very frustrating to the hardworking Border Patrol agents in northern Maine."
Mayorkas told Collins the decision to divert the funds was unfortunate but promised her he would investigate the issue.
Neither his office nor anyone from DHS responded to requests from the Daily News for comment on the matter.
Lack of a New Houlton Facility Could Hinder Operations
The Houlton CBP station was to be built at one of two possible undeveloped 15-acre Access Road locations — primarily agricultural land — north of Interstate 95. The new facility would accommodate up to 50 agents, according to the CBP's final report.
In addition, its design included a 16,100-sq.-ft. main building and 23,000-sq.-ft. support space, along with a two-bay vehicle maintenance space, ATV/snowmobile storage for 14 vehicles, storage for four boats, a heliport, a firing range and a training area.
In contrast, the current station has no storage for boats, trailers, snowmobiles, or all-terrain vehicles, which are stored off-site or at other CBP stations nearly two hours from Houlton. Security at the station is severely lacking, the report said.
CBP Director of Facilities Operations Bartolome Mirabal admitted that by not building the new facility, the Border Patrol's ability to respond to elevated levels of illegal border-related activity would be hindered in Houlton.
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