LEWISTON — For decades, Bates College has quietly scooped up scores of houses surrounding its historic campus.

It hasn’t been a secret — land ownership records are readily available public documents. But it hasn’t been obvious, either.

When all of the properties are mapped, a picture emerges: Bates has encircled itself with houses and apartment buildings that blend into surrounding neighborhoods while serving as homes rented out to the college’s own staff.

Bates doesn’t hide the goal behind its long-term buying strategy.

Right in its employee handbook is this explanation: “The primary purpose of the college’s acquisition and ownership of residences surrounding the campus is to provide space for future expansion of buildings, green space and other college needs.”

For now, it has at least 60 houses and apartments that it rents out to employees, along with many others that it uses for administration, storage and housing some of its students. Though most college buildings are tax-exempt, last year alone Bates paid about $226,000 in property taxes on its rental properties.

Marjorie Hall, the strategic communications director at Bates, said last week the college “selectively purchases properties when approached by neighbors to facilitate rental options for more faculty and staff to live locally in Lewiston.”

She also said that Bates “continually evaluates existing facilities and campus spaces to determine required maintenance, necessary capital improvement, and anticipated future needs.”

[Related Coverage: Lewiston master plan will help Bates’ future growth]

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NEIGHBORS EXPECT CHANGE

Most of Bates’ residential ownership is focused on the neighborhood across  Campus Avenue from the college’s central campus. For example, within a two-block area across from Bates’ historic quad — in an area bounded by Campus Avenue, Bardwell Street, Vale Street and College Street — only five private property owners remain.

On a sunny afternoon recently, one of them, Maurice Caron, stood in front of his building at 99 Nichols St. with a brush and a can of white paint.

“I’ve been painting this house all my life,” said Caron, 62, as he eyed the shingles on the house he inherited from his mother six years ago.

He said that someday Bates will buy his house, as well, and then probably demolish it. Bates has knocked down at least 10 houses in recent years.

But Caron’s not upset about the prospect. He said he’s known for years that he’s in the middle of what he calls “the acquisition zone” for the college that basically stretches between Campus Avenue and Vale Street.

“They call them Bates-friendly streets,” City Planner David Hediger said.

Bates has already changed the character of the neighborhood substantially over the decades, Caron said.

When he was young, Caron said, residences were chock-full of families and children. Now, the house next door at 95 Nichols is used “just for shoes and clothes” storage for the drama department, Caron said. The city approved the college’s storage proposal in 2012.

Yet Bates has been a good neighbor, he said. The tenants it brings in to some of the houses nearby are college workers who don’t cause any trouble.

Still, it’s not the same, Caron said. Everybody knew one another once. Kids played everywhere. The college, just down the street, seemed distant.

He pointed to an empty lot at the corner of Nichols and Vale streets where there used to be a store where he could pull his little wagon with returnable bottles and exchange them for a candy bar. Years later, though, it became a problem property with rowdy tenants — until it was torn down.

All around, Caron said, are empty lots where homes once stood.

But, he said, he understands that Bates has to look ahead more than most. He figures it has a 200-year plan for growth that will probably gobble up every bit of the neighborhood he’s known his whole life.

He said that when the day comes for him to sell, he’s sure Bates will be the buyer.

Over at 78 Central St., Brad Forgues rents an apartment from a private owner that is also almost surrounded by Bates-owned property.

In the seven years he’s lived there, he said, he’s never had a problem with the college or its properties.

Mostly, he said, they’ve served as a home for teachers on temporary assignments. But he’s also had students living next door.

Forgues said the group of students there were pleasant. They came over early on to talk with him and give him their phone numbers so he could reach them easily if he ever had a concern.

Forgues said he probably would have phoned them if he’d had a need. But he never did. Of course, he said, if they’d been partying loudly at 3 a.m., he might have just called the police, anyway.

He said his landlord expects the college will eventually buy the two-unit apartment house he lives in, but nobody appears to be in any rush.

Forgues said he figures Bates has a 20-year plan that will swallow up what’s left of the private property around his home. There are still a few left to snap up, he said.

Bates doesn’t have any exclusive right to buy any of the property. Nor can it force someone to sell.

When the college constructed two new dormitories on Campus Avenue a few years ago, it had to revamp its plans when 84-year-old Selma Nelson wouldn’t sell her two-story family home next door on Franklin Street.

She earned Caron’s admiration for holding on to her home. But in the long run, nobody doubts who will own her property.

The other day, at the same time a reporter was knocking on her door, sunbathing students had filled her backyard while a few others lazily tossed around a Frisbee beside them.

BATES: A GOOD LANDLORD

The buildings that are obviously part of the college — dorms, classrooms and the like — have always stood out. What’s harder to discern are the scores of places surrounding Bates’ core campus — bordered by Central Avenue, Campus Avenue, College Street and Russell Street — that don’t have any obvious tie to the school, yet belong to it.

Several Bates employees who spoke to the Sun Journal after requesting anonymity — they were concerned they might violate a policy requiring they go through the communications office before talking to a reporter — said they rented those places from the college through an internal mechanism that tries to provide decent, close housing to workers at a reasonable price. They each said Bates is a good landlord.

Bates lets its staff know there are places potentially available through its human resources office.

Its faculty handbook says the college “owns a limited number of houses and apartments which may be made available from time to time to faculty and staff.”

The employee handbook said one purpose of owning the many residences is that it can rent them out until the land is needed for some greater purpose.

In the meantime, it said, the rent helps to collect income “to offset the cost of the purchase, maintenance and repairs, and to provide housing that is consistent with the needs of the college.”

Rent is paid through payroll deductions, and tenants who leave the school’s employment are required to move within 30 days or by June 30, whichever comes first.

The handbook says the first consideration for renting out the dwellings is “for the recruitment and retention needs of the college,” which basically means if the buildings are needed for student housing, that’s priority one.

Faculty get the next dibs, followed by staff members “whose responsibilities indicate that proximity to the college would be advantageous.”

The college also tries to accommodate staff members with temporary assignments and those relocating from a long distance who may need some time to find something permanent.

Anything leftover is available for other Bates employees, quite a few of whom are happy to take the opportunity.

They said getting the chance to rent from the city’s “best landlord” is no small thing.

All of them said that someday the place they live will vanish as the Bates campus expands. That’s a given, they said, and surely good since it would indicate a prosperous college that is keeping its focus on the future.

The college opted not to respond in detail to questions about its future plans.

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