ORONO, Maine — Residents of The Grove, a new apartment complex that is home to hundreds of University of Maine students, experienced a series of problems last week as a result of the recent cold snap.
Among the inconveniences were power outages due to transformers too small to handle the amount of electricity being consumed, frozen water pipes and frozen sprinkler systems, according to tenants who spoke to the Bangor Daily News.
Located off Park Street about a half-mile from the Rangeley Road entrance to the University of Maine, the roughly $25.3 million complex is made up of a dozen buildings with 12 apartments in each, as well as another eight four-bedroom units called “townhomes.” The entire facility, which opened in September, has a 620-tenant capacity. Residents pay an average monthly rent of $525 per person.
Orono Fire Chief Robert St. Louis said that his department learned about the sprinkler system problem early on Friday, Jan. 25. Testing showed that the sprinkler systems in seven of the 12 buildings that comprise the complex were frozen, he said Friday.
“This was the first time we’ve run into the situation,” St. Louis said about the number of tenants affected. “We gave [the complex’s management] a couple of options.” Those boiled down to either getting the systems running by 6 p.m. or, if that failed, requiring renters have a “third party,” or someone who does not live there, remain on firewatch, as required by Orono code as well as National Fire Protection Association standards.
“They worked very hard to get that fixed,” he said of The Grove’s management, adding that the sprinklers were operational by 5:50 p.m. Friday.
Orono Code Enforcement Officer William Murphy said Friday heaters have now been installed in the complexes’ sprinkler rooms.
Since the complex opened on Sept. 1, tenants say they have been plagued with mold and mildew problems, plumbing problems and appliances that weren’t working, according to residents who were interviewed by the Bangor Daily News over the weekend and reports from The Maine Campus, the student newspaper.
Owned by North Carolina-based Campus Crest Communities Inc., the Orono complex — which uses heat pumps with a small electrical backup — also has been the site of raucous parties, including one that drew more than 300 in September, according to Orono police. That has calmed down since stepped-up security measures were put in place.
On Saturday, Mike Hartnett, one of the co-founders of The Grove’s parent company and a UMaine alumnus, discussed what has been done to address the problems.
“Response to customer concerns is a major cornerstone of what we’re all about,” he said, adding that steps the company has taken to address cold-related problems include replacing fuses in transformers that were undersized for the power load and installing heaters in sprinkler rooms.
“That was an unfortunate situation. We really apologize for the inconvenience,” Hartnett said, adding, “You work hard to build a quality project and once in awhile you just have some of those [problems] that will kick you in the fanny.”
During the several outages that occurred last week, tenants were provided a warm place to stay as well as food, drinks and movies in the complex’s clubhouse, which had power, he said.
“The transformer situation prompted us to send a team of construction professionals from our Charlotte office. They’ve been up there for a couple of weeks now just making sure everything’s nipped in the bud. We actually did some infrared camera videos, believe it or not, of sample apartments to make sure they were fully tight and well built,” Hartnett said.
Husson University student Whitney Remington, 22, and her 20-year-old sister, Lauren Remington, who attends the University of Maine at Augusta’s Bangor campus, are among the renters who are frustrated by the ongoing problems at The Grove — last week’s power outages among the latest.
The Remingtons, who came to Orono from Calais, said Sunday that they had just bought nearly $200 worth of groceries and had to throw away the meat and other perishable items because the refrigerator wasn’t running, as well as a meal they were preparing during one of the outages.
“Then we got an email saying we were getting a $50 compensation for the problems that we had to go through. That won’t even cover the groceries we had to throw away,” Lauren Remington said.
Whitney Remington said that other problems they’ve dealt with include a dishwasher and dryer that don’t work well, new furniture that’s already falling apart and long waits for repairs.
“As we go on, there’s more and more things that we notice,” she said.
And then there’s the question of mold.
Although Hartnett said the problem actually was mildew and that it had been addressed, the sisters insist that mold is growing in the bathrooms and on the windows.
“It’s mold — it’s straight up mold,” Whitney Remington said. Lauren Remington said she is worried about the mold because she is pregnant.
Alexandria Roberts, a graduate student pursuing a master’s in business administration at UMaine, is another unhappy renter. When she moved in, construction was still underway.
“The issues at this place are unbelievable,” she said Saturday. She said that since Jan. 19, the power went out seven times. Last Thursday, the water pipes froze. “Apparently [The Grove in Orono] wasn’t built to handle the amount of electrical power the complex uses,” she said, speculating that the reason may be because the parent company’s other properties are located in states that are far south of Maine. The second northernmost site is in Moscow, Idaho.
Hartnett said the company will continue working to address problems as they arise.
“We take the responsibility of the customer experience very, very seriously. That’s really our differentiator,” he said. “Yes, there have been a few inconveniences in the beginning and you know, I’m not making light of it. But you know any time you build a home or an addition on your home or any kind of new construction, you’re going to have punch list items that you’re going to have to fall back on and fix.
“We’ve done that and we continue to do that and we apologize for any inconvenience that we might have caused them, but we are focused on creating a great experience for these students and we’re just going to stay on it until we get 100 percent customer satisfaction.”