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Famous Portland Baked Beans Factory Will Become Campus Of Northeastern University Program

The B&M factory in 2017.
Brian Bechard
Maine Public file
The B&M factory in 2017.

On Monday, a plan was finalized that could reshape the image of Portland’s waterfront.

Under a new agreement, Portland’s iconic B&M Baked Bean factory will shut down by the end of the year and be redeveloped over the next decade. It will be replaced with classrooms, offices, shops, and other facilities for the Roux Institute at Northeastern University. That's the graduate education and research hub formed last year in the city focused on technology and life science.

(Related: Watch 1 Beanpot Circle, A cinematic tour of one of Maine's oldest canneries and New England culinary staple)

All Things Considered host Robbie Feinberg spoke with Chuck Hewett, the executive director of the Institute for Digital Engineering and Life Sciences, a nonprofit set up by the Roux family that's in charge of the project.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Feinberg: Can you give us just a general overview of everything that this new project will entail? Why was this site chosen by your group? And what are your plans for the B&M site?

Hewett: So the site is perfect to create a campus for a technology hub. It's a vibrant piece of property with 1,000 feet of shoreline on Portland Harbor, with spectacular views. But it's been industrial for the last 125 years. We saw the potential in it. And what we envision is that we'll create a building for the Roux Institute itself. The existing bean building will become an incubator for startup businesses that we hope will prosper and grow and spread out further afield in the city and Maine. We envision in the first phase, about 150 units of housing, probably a small, boutique-type hotel, and then longer term, more housing, more office and lab space. But perhaps most importantly, for some of your listeners, we're going to make this site available to the public. It's going to have a lot of open space in the heart of it. We're going to restore the coastline to a much more natural condition, create biking and walking trails along the water, picnic spots, a place to kayak and paddleboard. It's really going to be a fun, vibrant place.

So the Roux Institute has already been operating out of the offices of the company WEX since it started last year. Why the need to expand so far beyond that?

Well, you know, we've always envisioned having a permanent campus. Now, if you think about the great academic institutions, they've been around for centuries, they've made huge contributions to places like Boston and San Francisco. We have no desire to turn Portland into something like that. But we do think that Maine people should have an opportunity to participate in the 21st century economy. And this campus gives us the chance to do that.

How do you see this fitting into the city of Portland in general? What do you think it will really mean for the tech scene here?

Well, I think this is going to be an engine of economic opportunity that really drives the Greater Portland and Maine economy, you know, hopefully for the next century, but certainly for the next half century, that my colleagues at the Roux Institute who run it are doing a spectacular job recruiting internationally, international-caliber faculty, attracting businesses to come and co-locate with them. It's going to be a very vibrant, exciting hub.

You mentioned housing earlier, about 150 units. Clearly we're seeing this huge housing crunch here in Portland, which I imagine would definitely be felt by students and faculty who are looking to come there. How will this project address the housing crunch within the city?

So as I said, we anticipate about 150 units in Phase One. It may be considerably more than that, over the course of Phase Two and Phase 3, 10-15 years, let's say, but we envision housing suitable for graduate students, suitable for junior faculty. Obviously, we need to work to keep it affordable for them. And, you know, in addition to providing for the folks that will be on the campus, we want to not stress Portland's housing any more than we need to with this initiative.

So the baked bean factory, it's been this real iconic symbol of the history of the region, and some have wondered about whether this new plan is the latest sign of Portland losing some of that history and character. How do you feel about those concerns?

So Robbie, I've been driving past the Burnham & Morrill site since the early 1950s. The bean factory is emblematic of Maine's economy of the 1900s. Its technology is mostly mid-1900s technology. My hope is that the site, with the bean building as one of the important edifices on the site, can pivot and support the high-tech biotech economy of the 21st century. I think it's so wonderful as bean manufacturing winds down, that instead of sitting empty, or becoming just a luxurious development for people who want to live on the water, this can become in a new incarnation, an engine of economic opportunity for the 21st and hopefully the 22nd century.