UNITY — Behind a blue bar table, Vee Menoudarakos turns his attention to the back corner of the dining area. A year ago at this time, Unity House of Pizza’s co-owner and manager would be readying for a busy night ahead.

Those evenings at the Unity House of Pizza were full of beer, food and laughs. The calls came from Unity College students: “Vee! Are you going to come play?” acknowledging Menoudarakos’ penchant for playing pool.

UHOP, as it is known, is a classic college town watering hole except, at least for now, there is no college activity.

“I miss it, definitely. One-hundred percent,” Menoudarakos said. “We had fun. I loved it.”

It’s not just the coronavirus pandemic that put this small college town in a painfully fascinating situation.

As Unity College touts record enrollment thanks to its hybrid and distance learning models, the college is running entirely virtually this year. Unlike Colby and Thomas colleges, Unity is not offering any in-person instruction.

Local business are hurting. Services are decimated. The real estate market changed.

Unity College officials did not return multiple requests for comment.

The entrance to the Unity College campus in Unity. With all Unity College students now learning remotely, the town is feeling the effect of not having Unity students and staff  as patrons, employees and volunteers for their businesses and nonprofit groups. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file Buy this Photo

Founded in 1965, Unity College owns a hilly, 225-acre campus on Quaker Hill Road. Since its start, the college has served as an economic and cultural driver for the town. While classes remain in session online, the dearth of the college community impacts the town in myriad ways.

The usual 650 or so on-campus students have been gone since March 2020. Most off-campus students are out of town, save for a handful stuck with leases or jobs in town. Dozens of college faculty and staff are spending less time in the area, meaning the town of just over 2,000 residents has lost nearly one-third of its usual population.

The college itself announced major changes in August 2020, including laying off 15% of its staff, announcing the potential sale of its main campus, introduction of a “hybrid” educational model and a change from a traditional semester calendar to a schedule with eight five-week terms.

“I think my larger concern is for the town in general,” said Chad Tozier, who rents out a handful of buildings in the area, often to college students and staff. “The college put Unity on the map. It’s a life force for the town. I’m feeling an impact that I’ll work through, but I’m really concerned about the businesses and the future of the town if Unity College continues on this course.”

Some in town say the community is finding a “viable resilience,” ridding itself of its dependence on the college for its economic viability. Some don’t have strong feelings. Others are worried about how to survive.

Unity Board of Selectmen member Tony Avila moved to Unity in 1999 and, like many town residents, only knows life with the college as a major player. A car or two passes through the intersection of School and Main streets, but there’s certainly no traffic.

“It just feels empty,” Avila said. “The atmosphere is different.”

Unity Fire Chief Blaine Parsons at the firehouse Thursday. When Unity College shut down and sent students home in March, the department lost 12 firefighters. As a result, the department has had difficulty staffing daytime calls and must rely more heavily on mutual aid with neighboring communities. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

 

SHORT-STAFFED 

Unity Fire Chief Blaine Parsons takes pride in his department’s productive relationship with Unity College. Students obtain Firefighter 1 and 2 national certifications or Pro Board certification through a development program

When the college shut down and sent students home in March, the department lost 12 firefighters. Four came back to the department while studying remotely this academic year. However, the department does not have the opportunity to add students, especially those in their first-year. Normally, graduating Unity College volunteers were required to find replacements.

“We’re a volunteer department, where we have to have regular jobs outside of the fire department to maintain everyday living expenses for our own personal life,” said Parsons, who works in the billing department at MaineGeneral Health. “During the week and during daytime calls while everyone is at work, most of the college students would show up for calls.”

The Unity Fire Department now has 20 active members. Staffing daytime calls during the week has proved to be a challenge. Nearly 40% of calls now require mutual aid, twice as many as when college students were around.

Like the fire department, Unity Ambulance is calling for mutual aid on more calls than usual. Chief of service Bruce Cook said his group of volunteers feels the students’ absence.

Four or five Unity college students per year volunteered as Emergency Medical Technicians or as a driver. Unity Ambulance now struggles to find replacement volunteers. The service has around 10 regular volunteers, a third of the normal size.

“The ones that are on the service now have to go on a lot more calls and give up a lot more family time,” Cook said. “If you’re a volunteer, you don’t mind giving up some family time, but (having fewer people has) made us pick up the difference.”

Veggies For All, a gleaning project of Unity Barn Raisers, is powered by volunteers. Mary Leaming, director of Veggies For All, said individuals related to the college and also full classes of 15-20 students would volunteer.

“They are a core base of our volunteer corps,” Leaming said. “I don’t know if I was fully aware of how fortunate we’ve been with this institution of eager students and professors.”

Lifelong Unity resident Penny Picard Sampson, a 1990 Unity grad and chairperson of the town’s board of selectmen, believes COVID is the driver for most of the changes around town. She said it’s important to note the college closure might not impact everyone. The local businesses are hurting, she acknowledges, but banks and the like are doing OK. Also, not having the college students can eliminate some concern over the spread of the virus.

“Most of these volunteers are struggling anyways, so we had the benefit of having the college, a few more people to draw from,” Picard Sampson said. “Granted, they were here for a short time, but they contributed to the services.”

Unity House of Pizza co-owner Vee Menoudarakos mans at the restaurant and bar Thursday in Unity. UHOP is a classic college town watering hole except, at least for now, there is no college activity. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

 

LONG HOURS FOR LITTLE RESULTS 

On a winter Thursday just before noon, three men take a seat at the bar. Clad in work boots, they are the only customers dining in. Menoudarakos greets them with a friendly nod, but it’s impossible not to notice just how empty the UHOP is.

Menoudarakos works 80-hour weeks, up from 60 during normal times. He usually employed four or five Unity College students and cannot find replacements for the Main Street staple.

“I’m always here,” Menoudarakos said. “I miss the kids, business and help. I knew most of the kids by their first name.”

Unity House of Pizza’s other co-owner, Rita Lacroix, believes pandemic-related restrictions are the primary cause of the 50% losses, but the lack of the Unity College community contributes.

Under current regulations, Unity House of Pizza has six bar stools and six tables. Pre-pandemic, there would be a dozen tables and 14 bar stools. People would come in and hang out, too. Those days are over. Bar sales are down by at least 50% during the pandemic, sometimes more. The college also made up for most of UHOP’s business, especially late at night.

“They definitely make up a big part of the crowd, having beer, eating wings, etc.,” Lacroix said. “It’s hard to say what the impact of their absence is.”

When the college was in session, it made up “the primary portion” of UHOP’s delivery service. One or two deliveries a night didn’t cut it, so that service is gone. Unity House of Pizza often welcomed college administrators and staff for lunch.

“It’s kind of like the local watering hole and it was always packed, and obviously we can’t do that now,” Lacroix said.

Small businesses like those in Unity make up 99% of the state’s businesses, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. The Belfast Chamber of Commerce counts about a dozen Unity businesses among its members. The chamber’s executive director, Steve Ryan, said many of the businesses he’s heard from report clear differentiation between COVID-19 impacts and the absence of the college’s students.

 “I think businesses there can tease out what is COVID versus the college reduction,” Ryan said. “There’s COVID overlay, but it’s quite clear that a departure of a big chunk of the customer base is having an effect.”

Unity Kitchen owner Tamika Adjemian at the business Thursday. “Unity isn’t in session because of COVID,” she said. “It’s impacting the whole community.” Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

One of those businesses Ryan referred to is Unity Kitchen.

Tamika Adjemian opened the Main Street restaurant in December 2019, just a few months before Unity College shut down. The restaurant was building a customer base of students and staff.

Adjemian follows news about the college and is well-aware of the college’s emphasis on distance education and hybrid learning. As a new business owner, she finds it a challenge to discern the difference of the impacts of the virus versus those of the college.

“They’re so related,” Adjemian said. “Unity isn’t in session because of COVID. It’s just an accelerator. I don’t think the impact can be separated. It’s impacting the whole community.”

Before the pandemic, Unity Kitchen hosted game nights and taco nights. Adjemian started the business with a goal of becoming a part of the college community.

“I wanted to be a part of that experience,” she said. “We shut down three months into the pandemic. I wasn’t really given the opportunity to see how involved we could be.”

The Dunkin’ on Depot Street is missing around 350 customers per week with the college totally remote, franchisee Colleen Bailey said. They also employed around five Unity College students during the school year. Because it is mostly a drive-thru on a busy road, the pandemic has not been as impactful on the business as those that rely on people physically coming in.

“It’s obvious the college kids not being there has made an impact,” Bailey said.

 

REAL ESTATE MARKET CHANGES

Brothers Jordan and Chad Tozier’s connection to the college was significant, but the landlords saw the writing on the wall. Their great uncle, Kenneth Tozier II, is the college gym’s namesake and a founding member of the college.

Chad Tozier is down to eight rental buildings in Unity, six houses, a duplex and a triplex. He sold two houses this summer. All normally would be rented by Unity College students.

Chad Tozier had a waiting list for his units in years past, but now it’s been a challenge to hit 75% of normal capacity. Both Jordan and Chad Tozier received requests to break leases when the college announced its changes.

“I anticipated that the demand would increase, and it did,” Chad Tozier said. “That was the core of it.”

Jordan Tozier purchased his three-unit rental building on Quaker Hill Road five years ago and rented almost exclusively to Unity College students and recent graduates. With the uncertainty of the college’s return, he put it on the market. After six months it sold in January. It was listed at $234,000 and sold for $185,000.

“There was always the stress of wanting to help these people out, but I was concerned about tenants not paying and maybe abandoning their lease,” Jordan Tozier said. “Next year, if they don’t return to campus learning, we couldn’t have afforded to have had it not rented.”

Kenneth Copp owns a four-unit house on Ward Hill Road and rents by the room. He has one empty room and had to lower the rent a bit from years past.

“It’s more difficult now since the college isn’t there,” Copp said.

Associate Broker Realtor Emily Newell at her office in Unity Thursday. Some rental properties in town have had to find alternatives to the normal influx of student renters since the college closed last year to in-person learning. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Emily Newell and her father, Don, share an office just a few steps up Main Street from UHOP. Real estate agents with Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate The Masiello Group, the Newells have the pulse of who is coming and going from the town.

“We’ve never had a year with the level of activity like this,” said Don Newell, who has worked in Unity for 47 years.

While it’s well documented that people are moving to Maine from larger cities, Don Newell has helped a few former Unity College professors move out. In addition to real estate, Emily Newell manages 39 apartment units in 13 buildings across Unity. While her units remain full, there are only about half the students compared to prior years.

“I had to move things around a little bit, but they’re the kind of changes that happen because of life,” said Emily Newell, who is also a lieutenant with the Unity Fire Department. “It wasn’t anything we couldn’t recover from.”

No one is sure if Unity College is really coming back. The campus may be sold. The residential program may be back or it may not. No one knows. The community is in a tough spot, but its business and services are staying true. There’s nothing yet to prepare for.

“Unity College was brought to Unity and by the people of Unity to keep the town relevant and vibrant,” Jordan Tozier said. “That all seems to be going away.”

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