ORONO, Maine — The relationship between the University of Maine and Orono’s downtown has been tenuous in the past.
Residents have complained that students only come to town to drink, dance and on occasion cause mischief.
“As a general rule, a lot of people in the university area can feel a disconnect from the college student lifestyle,” said Keith Manaker, Harvest Moon Deli owner and seven-year Orono resident.
Students seek more to be involved with, see and do in surrounding communities, but some business owners say they feel students overlook Orono’s downtown.
A group of business owners known as the Orono Village Association, the town and the university are collaborating to change that and draw students across the Stillwater River and into the downtown.
The village association is pushing harder than ever to bring students into Orono businesses, involve them in town events and show them that they’re not just welcome, but wanted.
“We’ve never as a town officially pulled out all the stops to welcome the students and their families,” said Manaker. “We really do consider them valuable community members.”
The village association adopted the tag line “UMaine’s Downtown” before students arrived for classes this week. As part of UMaine’s Welcome Weekend, Manaker, who is also a village association member, led students on a tour of the downtown on the free shuttle that runs from the university to the downtown.
As part of a new contest, if students ride the shuttle and get 20 stamps for visiting 20 different businesses, they are entered to win a bicycle from Rose’s Bike Shop or an iPad.
The Orono Village Association distributed coupon booklets to students during Welcome Weekend, with offers ranging from 25 percent off a meal at Thai Orchid to $2 off a haircut at Fringe Full Service Hair Salon.
“As a business owner, I think that we’ve always really welcomed college students,” Manaker said. “In many ways, they’re our lifeblood.”
Collaboration between the town and university is in the best interest of both, according to Michele Goldman, village association president and owner of Fiberphilia, a downtown fiber arts store.
Merchants rely on university students, staff and visitors for about 34 percent of their business, according to studies conducted by the village association with the help of the university. At the same time, the university benefits from having a vibrant, busy downtown as a selling point to prospective students.
The Orono Village Association started working with the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center in August 2010 to research how to best promote and market the downtown.
“It’s superimportant that universities and communities work together and find ways to mutually support each other,” said Laura Lindenfeld, an associate professor of communications and journalism at the university who will supervise a graduate student working on marketing projects for the downtown this year.
Last year, the policy center helped the Orono Village Association conduct a study of downtown business and create a marketing plan to bring in more people from the university and surrounding communities.
The study found that 20 percent of the downtown’s business came from UMaine students and another 14 percent came from university employees and businesses, according to Orono Town Planner Evan Richert. Orono’s restaurants rely on university students and staff for about 47 percent of their business.
“The downtown depends on the university as a huge part of its market,” Richert said. “A healthy downtown means a healthy university town.”
Goldman said efforts to draw more students to the downtown district will continue throughout the school year.
The Orono Village Festival, set for Sept. 10, will be publicized and promoted on campus, and organizers hope for a large turnout, Goldman said.
The festival will feature musical acts, a chili cook-off, a road race and vendor tents. For the first time, university student groups will be invited to set up tables alongside town vendors and organizations.
A series of events with Stillwater Community Arts and a winter festival also are in planning stages, according to Goldman.
She hopes this year’s events, incentives and efforts will draw more students across Stillwater River on the Main Street bridge than ever before.
“That bridge seems a little bit shorter than it used to,” Goldman said.