GORHAM – The University of Southern Maine, using one name or another, has sat on a hill in the heart of Gorham for more than 130 years.
Passing through the village center, however, there’s little indication that a busy campus is just around the corner.
“It should be a college town,” said USM President Theodora Kalikow.
Kalikow came to USM last summer from the University of Maine at Farmington, where book-laden co-eds fill the town’s streets and shops.
“Nobody’s paying attention to each other. Nothing was happening,” she said of the town-gown interaction in Gorham. “Here we are, a nice university in a potentially good downtown location, and we don’t have very much of a connection.”
Kalikow has invited town officials to join USM staff and alumni at a reception Tuesday to start talking about how the college and community can collaborate more.
Joyce Bibber, a retired USM professor and author of a College History Series picture book about the university’s past, said there was once a tighter bond between Gorham and the college, because “the town was much smaller and the school was all it had.”
When Corthell Hall was built in 1878 for Gorham Normal School — which would become Gorham State Teachers College, Gorham State College, the University of Maine at Portland-Gorham and, finally, USM — the town’s population was around 3,000. Now, Gorham is more than five times that size.
The university, however, is still significant.
With 511 workers, USM is the town’s biggest employer, said university spokesman Bob Caswell. Campus dorms house 1,126 students; another 261 live in off-campus housing in town and 850 alumni have made their homes in Gorham, he said.
But all agree there is still a disconnect.
“It seems to me there should be a lot more hangout type places in town for kids to go, and there should be a lot more town folks on campus taking advantage of various activities,” said Kalikow.
Coffee shops and eateries in the village, about a five-minute walk from USM’s College Avenue entrance, benefit from the college being nearby, but both business owners and students say there’s room for more.
Carson Lynch, owner of The Gorham Grind coffeehouse, said USM students come mostly in the afternoon and account for about a quarter of his business — the same as the high school contingent.
He’d like to find a way to get college students to come down from campus for coffee in the morning and has been thinking about starting a songwriters’ night to draw a bigger crowd after dark.
That would get junior Caitlyn Vieth to spend more time in the village, where she lives in an off-campus house.
“We go to GHOP, basically, then we go back home,” Vieth said as she was walking from campus to the Gorham House of Pizza.
A tea house would also be nice, she said, and maybe a mini-movie theater. Vieth and other students in town last week said more entertainment venues and places to just hang out would get them to spend more time — and money — in Gorham.
Another way to increase the college’s presence in the village could be to bring university buildings into town, said Gorham Town Council Chairman Philip Gagnon.
“If, through USM’s development, we see more of that in our downtown, it could strengthen our village concept,” he said.
Having an office building or campus bookstore near Gorham’s busiest intersection would also make people more aware that there’s a college close by, he said.
And that could help with the other side of equation — getting more residents in the community to come up the hill.
Caswell said events through the university’s departments of music, theater and art bring 7,200 visitors to the campus every year.
“We’d love to have more,” said Dahlia Lynn, associate provost for academic affairs. She moved her office from USM’s Portland campus to Gorham last month, and has been tasked with improving student life there. Part of creating a more vibrant campus, she said, is to get more people onto it.
Sending newsletters to residents and hanging banners above the town’s streets are some of the ideas for letting the community know what’s happening on campus.
Beyond the arts, Lynn said, university staff has talked about starting cross-country skiing or snowshoeing courses and opening them up to the community.
Some existing connections could provide a base to build on.
Athletic events are already a big draw to the campus, bringing nearly 275,000 visitors a year, said Caswell.
In addition to intercollegiate games, USM hosts local high school, youth and club teams at its hockey, track and tennis facilities. The fieldhouse at the Costello Sports Complex is also the site of the Gorham Marketplace, an annual trade show featuring local businesses. And, every year, USM students organize a Halloween party there that’s been attended by more than 500 kids from the community.
Those are just some of the ways USM and Gorham already interact, Caswell said. He also pointed out that more than 40 education majors intern in Gorham schools.
“Our goal, our intent, clearly, is to build on those collaborations and to increase them whenever and wherever possible,” Caswell said.
One major stride USM has already made in strengthening its relationship with the community has been through reforming Greek life. After years of complaints from neighbors of frat houses, the town shut down Phi Kappa Sigma on Preble Street in 2010 and placed more restrictions — with bigger penalties — on the remaining frat houses.
Gorham police were called to Delta Chi house on Preble Street 32 times in the 2009-10 school year. Last year, that number was down to six, said Chief Ronald Shepard.
Unlike the community discussions that focused on fraternities a couple of years ago, the talk Tuesday will be focused on celebrating the interactions between the town and college and brainstorming about more.
“I’m encouraged by the attitude of town officials,” Kalikow said. “Over the course of a few years, we’ll see a difference.”
As for specific ideas about how to make the village more attractive to college students, Kalikow has one that would get her walking down the hill more often.
“I would kill for gelato,” she said.
Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at: 791-6364 or at