If you walk down to 27 Preble Street in Gorham this semester, you may find it different than when you last left. Beer cans will no longer litter the street and thumping bass lines will no longer carry on into the night. That building no longer belongs the Gamma Omega chapter of the Phi Kappa Sigma fraternity at the University of Southern Maine; it now belongs to the town of Gorham.
After failing to pay $26,937.21 in property taxes, the fraternity lost its house to the town. Earlier this month, the Gorham Town Council voted for the Phi Kappa Sigma house to be auctioned off, with the minimum bid set at $35,000. (Delta Chi, another USM fraternity, barely avoided a similar fate this summer. After owing roughly $36,000 in property taxes, Delta Chi brother John Turner says the fraternity paid its debt to Gorham, and will continue operation this fall.)Crucially, a special condition to the Phi Kappa Sigma sale forbids the residence from ever becoming a fraternity or sorority house, highlighting a conflict between Gorham and USM fraternities that goes much deeper than property taxes. After years of complaints, disturbances, and calls to the local police, Gorham is making moves to regulate off-campus fraternities.
"To state the obvious, there have been numerous problems in downtown Gorham, particularly in the Elm and Preble Street neighborhood," says USM spokesman Robert Caswell. "Within the last month, the town of Gorham informed us that they have separate proposals under consideration to control the behavior."
There are two such ideas under discussion by town officials. The first is an ordinance that would ban any future fraternity and sorority houses. Caswell says this idea is still "under consideration" with the Gorham Planning Board. A public hearing for the proposal will be held sometime in September for residential input and feedback, according to Caswell. The Planning Board will then suggest specifics for the ban to the Town Council, which will hold a final public meeting, and will then vote on the ban.
If the ban were passed, then Phi Kappa Sigma's housing alternatives would be slim. Not even USM is willing to provide a fraternity house on campus. Since Gorham dormitories are paid for through room fees separate from tuition, USM would only offer it if there were enough students willing to live in, and therefore pay for, a Greek-exclusive dorm. "That's doubtful, so we're not willing to go down that road financially," Caswell says.
Beyond freshmen, it's unclear whether USM students will even miss the fraternity house. "It's kind of a joke to go to a frat," says one rising junior at USM, who asked to remain anonymous because of friendships with fraternity members. "It's definitely a freshman thing." The student, who has visited Phi Kappa Sigma, Delta Chi, and Sigma Nu, says fraternity houses are mostly useless to non-members unless a giant party is being thrown. Once USM upperclassmen move into off-campus apartments, they just party there.
But frat defenders say beer is not the entirety of the situation. "The house is not the fraternity," says Peter Smithhisler, president of the Indianapolis based North American Interfraternity Conference, which advocates for and supports 73 national and international fraternities.