It’s no secret that the lack of connection between the University of Maine and the surrounding town of Orono is unique.
Geographical issues are partly to blame — a river does cut directly through both entrances to UMaine — but surrounding development may have diminished some of the partnership the university and downtown Orono once had.
While a number of projects are already underway between Orono and local businesses, a collaborative effort between several Orono town officials and a UMaine preceptor has developed. Rob Glover, jointly appointed to the political science department the Honors College, and his policy studies class are working to find organic ways to build a better connection between town and campus. The study is called “Building a Better Orono Together: Cultivating Organic Community Connection with University and Orono Stakeholders.”
“In general we’re trying to get a cross section of community and university perceptions of the downtown area and what they like and don’t like about it,” Glover said. “Faculty, staff, students and we’re trying to bring in residents to answer the focus and the questions. It’s been a process of handling logistics and making the connections. I’ve tried to make it as student driven as possible.”
Glover and his students are currently working to collect data via a survey, concerning what Orono can add to make it more appealing for the university’s recruitment. The survey has been distributed to students, faculty and town residents.
“[Orono] really wants to focus on not necessarily what the town and university can do together to make it more of a college town, but what the town can do in those areas to make it a better college town, so that Orono is an asset that the university can advertise for students to come,” said fourth-year political science student Alexandria Jesiolowski.
The survey has only been operating for a couple of weeks, but Glover said the turnout has been good and informational, and several findings have been a little surprising, thus far.
“It’s been interesting, so far. There’s a pretty positive sense, in terms of community,” Glover said. “Even with the students — they’re not exactly dismissive, but very few people are going to stay here.
“I think one big thing [the town] has been focusing on is how can they create economic opportunities [for students] and cultural opportunities so that people can think about Orono as a place to live after they graduate,” he added.
In trying to help with that, Glover and a number of the students intend to conduct focus groups with faculty members, students and business owners to get a feel for what it would take for graduating students to invest in the Orono community.
“I’m interested in hearing from the business owners because I think a lot of the relationships students have with downtown is the bar scene, and you look downtown and it really reflects that,” said third-year sociology student Shannon Brenner. “It’s interesting to look at the physical makeup of downtown and what [business] opportunities can survive.”
While additional business development is a point of emphasis for the town of Orono, it’s not the study’s main purpose. What Glover hopes the survey will provide organic ways to help connect the UMaine community with its surrounding town community.
“It’s not so much what new, shiny business can go downtown, but do the people of Orono feel welcomed at the University,” Glover said. “On both sides, you do see a divide with the people who are just residents and don’t work with the university. To the extent that there is a divide, people are trying to bridge it.”
But the sociological divide between UMaine residents and non-UMaine residents is only one of the problems. Another isn’t as easily solved, as geographical structures aid to the separation.
“The physical separation is a huge part of it,” Glover said. “At [the University of New Hampshire], you have the college and Durham embedded into each other. Literally there’s a river you have to cross to get to our downtown.”
One UMaine-Orono partnership that helped resolve that issue was the addition of the Black Bear Express, the joint-cost public transportation system that brings students from downtown Orono to UMaine and vice versa.
“The shuttle has helped some, but we’re looking at ways, despite that physical separation, we can organically make connections between the people of the university and people of the community,” Brenner said.
As it is, the downtown area is still frequented consistently by UMaine community members, but it isn’t sufficient as a one-stop shopping destination for its surrounding residents.
“I think people value the ‘walkability’ of downtown,” Glover said. “I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘What’s here is a good start.’”
With a finite number of options in downtown Orono, residents sometimes need to head elsewhere to obtain essential goods. If the downtown area were to increase its offerings, Glover and his students believe it could go a long way.
“I think external development has been an issue, and I think Orono’s best chance is to capitalize on the fact it’s a college town and looking at ways we can make it special,” Brenner said.
While the data gathering stage is still in process — Glover said there had been about 370 replies as of Feb. 15 — he is pleased that the conversation is progressing, though he admits he wasn’t nearly the first one to instigate it.
“I’ve only been here a couple years, but I get the sense that the relationship between the university and the community has been a long discussion.”
The survey can be taken here.