Picture this: it’s 2010. The Ave doesn’t yet exist, with its abundance of officers patrolling for groups of people and any noise slightly above a dull roar. The Reserve is, at this time, the infamous Grove, a quintessential college living option. You’re getting ready with friends to head over for dollar wells on a Wednesday at one of the bars on Mill Street that sell wildly cheap drinks. There’s a hockey game on Friday that will create a line of students from the doors of the Alfond to the entrance to the football field. Life is good.
Fast forward a decade, and there’s really only one true bar in Orono. Sporting events aren’t nearly what they used to be. One of the best teams on campus, the women’s basketball team, doesn’t even play their home games in Orono, but in Bangor. The disconnect between the campus and the surrounding town is as great as ever. This town, the home of the University of Maine, is no longer much of a college town.
Orono has potential. Tons of it. If you ask a group of UMaine grads from the early 2000s, they’ll tell you that Orono was a blast. But since then, the town has inched further from a college town and closer to a cute little family town, and when examining Orono and UMaine’s qualities over the years, it’s easy to see why.
First, it’s important to note that a college town and a college experience aren’t just about drinking. It’s also important to note that drinking is something that does attract students, as most come of age while in college and are eager to exercise that new right in whatever ways they desire. A couple of fun bars also change the vibe of the town. In a 2015 article from Business Insider, the very first line emphasizes the importance of campus bars as a part of the college experience. Now, UMaine doesn’t really have any campus bars, aside from the Bear’s Den in the Memorial Union, which in itself is a shame. But in the nearby town, having a couple of bars for college students to hang out in is, in fact, a large part of what differentiates a town from a college town.
Over the course of the past decade, Orono’s bar scene has been slowly disappearing. There’s no Bear Brew, no Roost, etc. Barstool Sports has a competition going for “Barstool Best Bar,” and while our very own Orono House of Pizza (OHOP) is still in the running, it’s interesting to note that there’s not a single other bar in Orono that could’ve made this list anymore, while a few years ago, there were at least a couple of others that could’ve been in the running. Now, they’ve been replaced by restaurants that, while they’re great places that serve their purpose, aren’t places that people actually go out to. In 2021, Orono’s single small downtown street is mainly a handful of restaurants that you’d bring your kids to any night of the week. That’s not how a college town looks.
So Orono needs more bars. That’s a step. But there’s more to it, and a study conducted by UMaine students highlights some other issues. The 2013 study surveyed UMaine students, faculty, staff and Orono residents unaffiliated with the university about how satisfied they are with Orono as a college town. While UMaine students were only 40% satisfied, residents of Orono unaffiliated with the university were 80% satisfied. It’s great that Orono residents are happy, but it just goes to show that it’s not much of a college town, and there must be a way to bridge that gap to bring student satisfaction up as well. The study, as well as a Bangor Daily News article, also brings up the lack of connection between downtown Orono and the campus — both in distance, but also in the culture of the two communities. The short distance from Orono’s downtown to the UMaine campus doesn’t need to be something that creates a disconnect, but at the moment the divide that it has fostered is significant.
Overall, Orono has some work to do at this time. It’s closer to a small town feel than that of a college town, and there are a handful of directions the town could go in to get that college feel back. But ultimately, the lack of connection between the campus and the town, the lack of events on campus and the major lack of places for college kids to socialize in town are matters that need to be addressed to revive Orono as a great college town.