When Chelsea MacDonald-Coffin moved into her new apartment in September at The Grove in Orono, she didn’t expect mold in her bathroom.
She said complex officials hired a company to stop the mold by bringing in dehumidifiers. An employee of that company then told her the problem wouldn’t be resolved unless carpeting was redone.
“I brought the issues to a [visiting] corporate representative,” said MacDonald-Coffin, a second-year management student at the University of Maine. “She basically said that I didn’t know what I was talking about.”
Since the opening weeks of The Grove at Orono, students say more complaints have been lodged and little has been done to resolve them.
Of late, the largest problem has been a slew of power outages — anywhere from eight to 10 within a three-day period last week — which has resulted in chilling temperatures for a number of residents. The outages would last anywhere from 15 minutes to a couple of hours
“I have emailed, I have called,” MacDonald-Coffin said. “Nothing really gets done until the town actually comes here.”
Power outages, cold spells
Campus Crest, based in Charlotte, N.C., owns and operates The Grove in Orono. Founded in 2004 by Ted Rollins and University of Maine alumnus Mike Hartnett, the company grew from housing 448 students nationwide in 2005 to over 20,000 in 2013 — six locations opened in 2012. The housing units are basically the same cookie-cutter design.
“We recognize that our reputation, as an operator and a community partner, is critical to the success of our company,” Hartnett said in a Saturday interview.
Hartnett, Marketing Director Emily Leverone and Campus Crest spokesman Jason Chudoba spoke to The Maine Campus concerning issues brought to the paper by a number of residents, some of whom didn’t want to be named.
“We understand there have been some instances at the Grove in Orono where we’ve had some inconvenienced and frustrated students, and we absolutely apologize for that,” Hartnett said. “I’m from Maine — I went to the University of Maine — [and] we are focused on responding. There were a small number of students that experienced issues and I think early on it may have taken longer than we would have liked to fix.
“We’re continually working to improve our response time and really now believe a majority of the residents at the Grove in Orono are happy with how we’ve responded and resolved these issues,” Hartnett added.
Hartnett said he believes power issues are resolved. He said the problem was caused by faulty fuses on transformers, which were installed by Bangor Hydro, the power company for the Greater Bangor area and a partner of Campus Crest in the complex’s design. The power company has since replaced those fuses.
It was rumored among residents that transformers and heat pumps couldn’t withstand colder weather. Hartnett agreed that the pumps’ efficiency can be questioned.
“I think a heat pump will work very nicely, [but] when you get down to 20 degrees or so, I think the efficiency of the heat pump is lowered,” Hartnett said. “When you get down to really low temperatures, near zero [degrees], that’s when the electrical heat [turns on].”
Still, Hartnett and Campus Crest believe fuses caused the outages, not the system. He praised Bangor Hydro for a quick response, but he said they were partly to blame.
“I think we had some fuses that were not properly installed by them, and they went out and replaced the faulty fuses,” he said. “It’s by no means [because] of faulty design: It was the fuses, and [Bangor Hydro] should have known that from the design.”
In addition to replacing fuses, Campus Crest sent a team of consultants with infrared cameras to take pictures identifying areas where drafts could seep into apartments.
“I think in some areas, like electric meter or a laundry-room vent, you [typically] see infrared energy leakage,” Hartnett said. “I think the draftiness under doors or a window that needed to be replaced here or there — I think that’s what we needed to fall back on to fix. But the true integrity of the design, I think, is sound.”
When they did decide to repair some weather stripping, Campus Crest sent a team from its North Carolina construction office. The company said this caused delay in getting it fixed.
MacDonald-Coffin isn’t convinced.
One day after an interview and a tour of her apartment by Orono town officials, she sent The Maine Campus a photo of her bedroom window. There was a 2-inch-high chunk of ice on its inside, freezing it shut.
Some residents have questioned whether these problems stem from hasty construction of the complex.
In November 2011, a local contractor told The Maine Campus he didn’t think the company had time to meet its September 2012 deadline, especially since it didn’t have all required permits and William Murphy, the town’s code enforcement officer, said he hadn’t seen all plans for the complex.
They finished, but many said they didn’t finish strongly.
‘Enough time to finish the project’
A September report in The Maine Campus examined a number of unfinished or poorly finished rental units, including poor wood trimming, water stains in bathrooms, scuffed floors and non-operational emergency lights.
And while Hartnett insisted that there was enough time to complete construction, he did admit that a couple units went “right down to the last minute.” He said some units were finished on the complex’s opening weekend.
“They were in there putting carpeting down in some living rooms and touching up some painting,” Hartnett said.
Still, he said quality wasn’t an issue.
“Keep in mind, we’ve built this building over and over again, and it needs to meet all codes,” he said. “I don’t think there was a low-quality component at all.”
Since then, Murphy, the town’s code enforcement officer, is no stranger to issues at The Grove, reporting that he’s fielded “between 10 and 15 wide-ranging complaints.”
After touring through the complex with Orono’s fire chief and fire marshal, Murphy talked with on-site general manager Alex Carson to determine what had been done in the past couple days to cause the power outages, determining that the steps Bangor Hydro took should fix the problem.
Regardless, MacDonald-Coffin has decided to do one thing that she thinks will get the company’s attention.
“If my heat isn’t working, I have mold in my apartment and the power is going out 2 hours every day, then what am I paying for?” MacDonald-Coffin said. “I haven’t paid rent for December or January, and I’m not planning on paying rent until everything is fixed.”
Campus Crest did respond to its UMaine residents via an email on Jan. 24 regarding the power outages. After explaining the situation, the email said it is issuing a $50 rent credit for February.
“Obviously we know it’s very cold up there, and we don’t want you to be without heat and power, and it’s very important to take care of our residents,” said marketing director Leverone over the phone. “It’s not an ideal situation, and we apologize for that.”
What remains to be up in the air is how these problems will affect the company’s bottom line in Orono.
While Hartnett said Campus Crest can’t disclose how well the leasing for next year’s apartments are going, he said leasing is going well.
“To us, it’s a signal of customer satisfaction, even though there were hiccups in the road,” he said.
MacDonald-Coffin hasn’t heard the same enthusiasm around the complex.
“I’ve urged other people not to sign with the Grove,” she said. “Pretty much anyone I know who lives here isn’t re-signing next year.
“I think they kind of take advantage of the fact that we are college students and think that maybe we don’t know as much,” she added. “It’s kind of insulting.”
[Update]: Bangor Hydro Communications Supervisor Susan Faloon responded to an inquiry by The Maine Campus saying that the power outages were caused by “actual demand on the electrical system [that] exceeded projected demand.”