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Opinion: Student Housing Takes a Village

In one of last week’s letters regarding year-round rentals, Rebecca Richardson stated, “As for COA students needing housing … this should not be the responsibility of Bar Harbor residents.” Ms. Richardson is absolutely correct. Nevertheless, exploring some context might be useful for readers

COA’s founders, local Bar Harbor friends Les Brewer and Father Jim Gower, imagined a college where the typical divide between “town and gown” was blurred. Part of blurring that divide involved students engaging with the town in all kinds of ways, including living in the community. When I was a student (1988-1992) I lived on campus my first year and, like many others, found off-season housing in town for the other three years. In that rental market, in-town landlords received a stream of off-season rental income when their spaces would otherwise be empty, and we learned about leases, the need for on-time payments, water bills, being good neighbors and the like. It’s a process that has its imperfections, to be sure, but it worked for many people for many years. 

But times change, for the college and the town. COA has grown from about 225 students “back in the day” when I was a student to 350 today, which is where we want to be. Current rental markets on Mount Desert Island, and especially Bar Harborsimply cannot absorb the approximately 175 students that live off campus from September to June. It was this change that inspired us to purchase townhomes adjacent to COA; that encouraged us to establish a partnership with the MDI Biological Laboratory to rent space during the shoulder season; and that fuels the trend for COA and other area institutions like The Jackson Laboratory and Acadia National Park to explore solutions for our housing needs. It’s also why we’ve earmarked $5 million in our current capital campaign to build new housing on campus. Until that’s done, we will work creatively with friends and partners to ensure our students can live and learn on their Island home. 

As we evolve, COA remains firmly committed to the vision of Les Brewer and Father Gower of a stronger, deeper, more meaningful partnership between our community and the college. It is an ongoing, dynamic relationship with benefits on both sides of the equation. Of our approximately 2,700 graduates, over 200 have made their home here on Mount Desert Island. All of our alumni have been enriched by this place and the people here, and many in turn enrich us as schoolteachers and administrators, chefs, physician’s assistants, veterinarians, farmers, restaurateurs, artists, parents, jewelers, scientists, conservationists, yoga teachers, small business owners and more. 

For every local alumnus who has figured out how to make it work here, there is a young person today, whether from COA or from any number of backgrounds, who falls in love with this place and feels that same drive to build a life here. We heard some of these young people speak at the recent housing forums. I don’t believe that they feel they are “entitled to live in downtown Bar Harbor cheaply,” as Ms. Richardson stated. What they do want is a workable living situation, and that is what they, and others like them, are going to need in order to stay here and contribute to our community. To ignore their testimony would be a mistake. 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Maine is the oldest state in the nation. Because of institutions like the College, the labs, the hospital, Acadia National Park, and our many mission-oriented nonprofits, young people want to live and work here. Our towns are almost unique in Hancock County in attracting a vibrant, young, year-round population. Affordable housing is an issue for many people. Let’s keep that in mind when we consider the kind of community we want to build. 

Darron Collins is the President of College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor

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