When Tamika Adjemian opened her restaurant on Main Street in Unity in December, she saw it becoming a part of the social life for the roughly 700 students at Unity College, less than a mile away.

But that vision for Unity Kitchen dissolved this spring when the coronavirus pandemic spread around the country and college campuses, including Unity’s, shut down and sent students home.

“All of that is gone,” Adjemian said of her hopes for a busy student clientele. “We were hoping to be a robust part of that scene and I have no idea how it will go in the fall. I don’t know what winter will bring. That’s a serious concern.”

That worry abounds in other Maine college towns, as well. A report issued in June by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston found that Maine leads the region in terms of the number of municipalities that are heavily dependent on colleges and universities for their local economies. In Penobscot County, home to the University of Maine in Orono, for example, more than 10 percent of the local jobs were in higher education as of 2018.

The report said 57 communities across New England are highly dependent on a college or university for employment, including 19 in Maine. And six of the Maine schools in those towns – more than in any other New England state – are financially vulnerable because of declining enrollment and a low endowment-to-expense ratio, it said.

Officials at the Boston Fed declined to identify the six communities for fear of stigmatizing them, and it’s possible that an analysis based on endowments could be misleading, because public colleges and universities have lower endowments and a greater reliance on state funding than private schools.

The report said U.S. colleges and universities have received $14 billion in aid from the federal CARES Act, but that by late April, costs to higher education institutions resulting from the pandemic exceeded that amount.

Tamika Adjemian, right, stands out front of her restaurant Unity Kitchen on July 2. Adjemian and her husband Dan Hanchrow opened up the restaurant in the small college town in December of 2019. Adjemian said they have loyal customers, but she is worried about what the winter months will be like for them with if there are no students on campus at Unity College. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

In Maine, the University of Maine System announced last week that it will reopen its campuses this fall, but Unity College and Bowdoin College in Brunswick have said they will switch to remote learning to reduce the chance of students being exposed to the coronavirus. The UMaine System also plans to close its campuses at the Thanksgiving break and conduct the final weeks of the fall semester online.

The report noted that reopening in the fall carries higher costs and risks for the institutions, ranging from the cost of regularly testing students, faculty and staff to having to rent rooms in local hotels because of the need to reduce capacity at residence halls.

And there are a great deal of unknowns that will only be answered once the campuses are reopened, the Boston Fed said.

“In the absence of a COVID-19 vaccine, life in college towns across New England and the country will be different, but just how different remains unclear,” the report said.

In Orono, a closed UMaine flagship campus would have had an impact both “sudden and severe,” said Town Manager Sophie Wilson.

She said businesses that rely on student customers would suffer, and that could have rippled into difficulties collecting property taxes, both from commercial landlords and those that rent apartments to students living off campus.

Wilson said Orono has a small budget of about $10 million for a town of 11,000, and that’s due in part to the presence of the university. Although the college property is exempt from taxes, the university pays about $4.5 million to the town for emergency medical, firefighting, sewer and other services.

Wilson said the town and UMaine have a good relationship, but she worried that the university would want to renegotiate its arrangements with the town and reduce its payments if UMaine had decided to stick with remote learning for the fall semester.

The university and its students are the primary economic force in the town, Wilson said.

That economic force is even stronger in a smaller town like Unity, said Penny Picard Sampson, who chairs the town’s board of selectmen.

She noted that Unity is a service center in western Waldo County, so many drugstores and other retailers in town might not take a huge hit from the closed campus. She also said apartments and other rentals might be affected, but there’s a bit of a housing shortage in town that should be eased by the lack of college students in the fall.

But Sampson also noted that the Common Ground Country Fair, a popular fall festival put on by the Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association, is being canceled as an in-person event in Unity this year, another economic blow to the community.

“We’ve got three whammies,” she said. “COVID, Common Ground and the college, the three C’s.”

The town doesn’t have any payment arrangement for services in place with the college, Sampson said, but the college does have some properties that are on the tax rolls. Unity College also had some service days for its students in which groups would clean headstones in the cemetery, work at a nearby bird rehabilitation center or fix up walking trails in town, she said. That kind of free labor would be costly to replace.

And, she said, college students make up one-quarter to half of the volunteers with Unity’s fire department.

“We’re short on (fire department) manpower during the winter break and summer, and now we will be short the rest of the year as well,” Sampson said. The board of selectmen will meet soon to discuss the impact of the college closing, she said.

In Brunswick, the decision to close the Bowdoin College campus this fall will have an impact, but perhaps not as severe as in smaller towns such as Unity, said John Eldridge, manager of the town of about 15,000 residents.

“Obviously, the college is an integral part of the community,” Eldridge said, but the campus closing is not expected to have a significant impact on town finances. The college pays for a few services in town, which he called “minimal,” and also makes some contributions to the town in lieu of taxes, he said, but that’s not expected to change.

Eldridge said the lack of students, parents and visitors likely will hurt some local businesses, such as restaurants, but so will the decision to cancel the Maine State Music Theater’s summer season and the annual air show in town.

“You just can’t suffer the kinds of economic losses that some of these businesses are suffering and expect them to survive long-term,” Eldridge said. But he said worries over the college’s long-term future would be overblown.

“Bowdoin is part of the mix of the economic well-being of Brunswick,” he said, “and Bowdoin is probably better positioned than most.”

Unity Kitchen, the building on the right, on Main Street in Unity on Thursday. Tamika Adjemian and Dan Hanchrow opened up the restaurant in the small college town in December. Adjemian said they have loyal customers, but she is worried about what the winter months will be like for them if there are no students on campus at Unity College. As of now, there won’t be any students for the fall semester. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Adjemian, the restaurant owner, said she’s taking steps to help Unity Kitchen adapt to the new reality. Originally, she saw it as a coffee shop in the morning, but that business dried up when restaurants had to close to indoor dining. Still, she’s doing more dinner takeout business than she anticipated.

“That’s a different focus than avocado toast and coffee in the morning,” Adjemian said, so business hours have shifted to a slightly later opening in the morning and staying open through the dinner rush in the afternoon and evening.

Also, she redesigned a section of the restaurant to sell local food and is getting good support for a fundraising campaign to buy a larger refrigerator to increase the mix of products she can offer.

“This has been quite an interesting time for us,” Adjemian said, noting that tourist business was surprisingly strong through June, and Unity College plans to hold its 2020 commencement on Aug. 1, which will bring some more people into town.

But the Boston Fed report said the health of the colleges and universities bear watching because they play an outsize economic role in their host communities.

“While both short-term and long-term disruptions to higher education could affect the entire region, these communities likely would feel the largest impact, because the local economies rely so heavily on these schools that may be less equipped to withstand the potential obstacles ahead,” the report said.

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