For the better part of two decades, the town of Orono has been stumped about how to advance its downtown region and incorporate promotion of the University of Maine. The UMaine campus is just a mile away from downtown, but for a stranger entering Orono for the first time, UMaine could be 100 miles away.
To inspire change, Orono and the University Credit Union have forged a partnership to help spur downtown development.
The partnership began in 2009 when the longstanding Katahdin Building on the corner of Main Street and Bennoch Road burnt down. The building had previously been used as a bank, a tavern, a post office and an apartment complex. Its removal left open prime real estate in downtown.
Soon after, the UCU bought the land where the Katahdin building sat, hoping to eventually enter downtown business.
“The old Katahdin building had a presence; It was right on the corner of the street,” UCU President Matt Walsh said. “We’ve had an interest in having a downtown presence.”
However, the plot of land itself isn’t large enough for the growth the UCU is looking for. The UCU opened talks with Town of Orono officials, mainly because of its intentions to develop downtown and Orono owns the parking lot directly next to the UCU’s plot of land.
“This is almost like a 50-50 partnership because we both own land,” Orono Town Planner Evan Richert said. “We wanted to help somebody develop it; we didn’t know who or what at the time. We thought it was a blessing when [UCU] said they wanted to. We were looking for a reference building — something that will become a landmark in time.
The town of Orono owns the parking lot across the street from the post office as well as the Treadwell building, which will be torn down for additional parking. The apartment building located adjacent to the UCU’s location was also purchased by the town and will be demolished for the development.
Three elements to the project
According to Walsh, there are three main components going into the development that will help both the UCU and the downtown area. The first is a public plaza that will be located in front of the UCU development.
“The Plaza, which embraces Main Street and Bennoch [Road], is going to be owned by the credit union and open to public use,” Walsh said. “The plaza is a shared cost, and the credit union owns it and maintains it perpetually.”
As for the building itself, the majority of its three floors will be used for the UCU, both as a local branch and to house some of its administrative and technological operations. In addition, parts of the first and second floor are most likely going to be available for lease for businesses and offices.
“We’re open minded,” Walsh said. “[But] we’re hoping for business space versus restaurant [space]. I don’t know if it’s built for a kitchen and all those things.”
While the UCU will fund and own the building, the development and design was a joint effort.
“We entered with an agreement with the town to co-develop the building,” Walsh said. “We agreed to build a building that was at least 16,000 square feet. It was important for the town to have some scaling and size to that corner, so that it created the visual impact of what doesn’t exist anymore.”
The development will bring is more parking, primarily off Bennoch Road. Walsh expects most of the spaces to be occupied during the day, but at night, when banks and businesses close, the parking lot will stay open for the late-night scene.
“Overall, there will be about 90 parking spaces,” Walsh said. “During the day, people will be parking in here to frequent the building, but the things that are likely to be in this building are going to be open during normal business hours, so it can become overflow parking for the town during the night.”
From the town’s perspective, it wanted a distinctive feature — preferably one associated with the university.
“We wanted a landmark building, and we hoped it was something associated with university activity,” Richert said. “We wanted some sense of a public gathering place as well. We wanted something that felt natural.”
‘Here to serve the university’
Perhaps the biggest reason for the town and the UCU to partner in the development was to enhance UMaine’s footprint in the downtown area. The UCU has no direct affiliation with UMaine or the University of Maine System, but it is apparent, both in name and in locale, that its objective is to try to develop a relationship with its surrounding campus and population.
“Even though we’re not officially part of the college, we’re here to serve the university,” Walsh said. “It would be the first thing downtown that looks like it’s a part of the University of Maine.”
While Richert admitted that the UCU isn’t exactly UMaine foraying into downtown, it does a similar job.
“There’s nothing [downtown] that says ‘university,’” Richert said. “It’s been a goal of the community for some time to form a stronger, physical, perceptual relationship with the university. It’s not the physical presence of the university itself, but the credit union has such a strong university following, that a lot of them will be coming to downtown to do business here. I still have hopes that the university might take up some of the space in the building.”
From the town’s perspective, its share of costs between the preparation, the parking lot and the plaza is expected to total just over $2 million.
“We created a partnership that was both necessary and turned out to be very enjoyable,” Richert said.