PORTLAND, Maine — Glenn Cummings donned a hard hat and smiled as he stepped into a damp concrete skeleton of a building on a dreary November morning.
“Wow,” he exhaled to a gaggle of engineers as they led him, president of the University of Southern Maine, on a tour of what will be a 218,000-square-foot, 588-bed residence hall and student center.
USM’s main campus is in Gorham, a suburb west of downtown Portland. Its athletic buildings are there, and many of its lecture halls are there, too, as well as all current student housing.
But the new, eight-story building — called Portland Commons — is being erected in the heart of Maine’s largest city, on USM’s smaller satellite campus.
“Our Gorham campus is very important to us and our students,” Cummings told NEWS CENTER Maine after his tour. “Especially students who come from rural areas. They feel very comfortable in their first couple years, but then they want to get into the city.”
The Commons will be a short drive from Portland’s popular Old Port bar neighborhood, never before possible for on-campus students. That makes Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce CEO Quincy Hentzel quite happy.
“I think any influx of people into the region who are going to be the local clientele for restaurants and breweries and retailers is going to be incredibly helpful,” Hentzel said. “I also think the students might be looking for part-time work.”
In addition to temporary work while in school, Hentzel added that tradespeople and business owners would love to retain that young talent in the region after graduation. That plays right into another of Cummings’ goals for the school: Keeping students enrolled through graduation.
Cummings said his commuter students were more likely to give up school before earning a degree. He wants freshmen to move into the Gorham campus first and settle in. No freshmen, he said, will be allowed to apply for housing at the commons. Only upperclassmen can apply, and Cummings promises affordable rent when they do. He said a single-person room will cost “well under” $1,000 per month.
“People want to come to a place where there’s nice housing, where it’s affordable, and there’s nightlife,” he said.
After a failed bid in 2019 to change the school's name to "UMaine Portland," the project is partially a marketing ploy to use the allure of Portland to attract and retain students.
It also addresses an overcrowding problem at the school.
“We’ve had about 120-125% overload in our Gorham campus pre-COVID,” Cummings said. “And, even during COVID, as we came back this year, we’re now at, basically, maximum capacity.”
In fact, as the Portland Press Herald first reported when students moved back to campus in August for the fall semester, dozens planning to live in dorms were moved to the DoubleTree hotel near the Maine Mall in South Portland. The goal, just as many universities faced over the past two years, was to space out the student population and reduce contact. But it underscored the crowding issue that already existed.
Construction crews broke ground in April. Portland Commons is scheduled to open to students in Summer 2023.