Waterville is in the midst of a renaissance. Millions of dollars are pouring into the ghost of a once thriving industrial community with the hopes of stimulating its ailing economy.
“In two years, it’s going to be a different street,” said Brian Clark, Vice President of Planning for the College.
At the annual Harvest at the Square Festival last week in Castonguay Square in downtown Waterville, Chairman of the Harold Alfond Foundation Gregory W. Powell and Colby President David A. Greene announced that the two organizations will be establishing a $20 million fund for the revitalization of downtown Waterville. The College will put up $10 million and The Alfond Foundation will match it.
The Harold Alfond Foundation was established in 1950 and invests in projects in central Maine. The Foundation has a long tradition in Waterville having established the Alfond Youth Center and providing grants to Thomas College, Colby, and various other organizations such as Waterville Creates! At the end of 2015, The Harold Alfond Foundation’s endowment was approximately $735 million. Colby’s endowment in 2015 was valued at $760 million.
In the Harold Alfond Foundation 2015 Grant Report, the foundation outlined its desire to continue supporting the College’s investments in downtown Waterville, stating, “We are funding Colby on its community revitalization efforts taking place off the campus. The Foundation shares Colby’s interest in helping to revitalize Waterville’s downtown, and our efforts toward this end are multi-faceted…”
According to the same letter, the Foundation has supported Colby in the hiring of redevelopment experts and the acquisition of properties on Main Street. The letter stated, “we hope to inject new energy and economic activity into Waterville, creating positive ripple effects for all.” The report continued, alluding to the recent announcement of Alfond’s partnering with Colby, “There is much work to be done, but we expect 2016 to be a very busy year on Main Street as well as on Mayflower Hill.” Clark commented that the College and the Harold Alfond Foundation had been working together on the grant for over a year.
In an email to the student body, Greene said, “This grant builds upon this tradition, allowing Colby to make significant investments that are already catalyzing private development and attracting new businesses to Waterville.” He also praised the Alfond foundation for their “steadfast generosity” to Central Maine for over 60 years.
In an op-ed in the Bangor Daily News, Powell and Greene stressed their hope that other struggling communities around the country will follow Waterville’s path and find a “renewed sense of possibility.” They claim the revitalization efforts “could be considered the perfect storm of development—partners from all sectors of the city coming together with passion, commitment and financial support to make catalytic investments and revitalize a beautiful, historic downtown.”
The fund will be utilized to support ongoing and future capital projects, according to Clark. The fund will be controlled by Colby and will be subject to oversight by the Board of Trustees.
For most of Waterville’s history major players in the manufacturing industry have dominated the city’s landscape and influence. Now, Colby stands as the largest institution for sustaining the heritage of central Maine and Waterville and to bring it back from the state it has been in for years.
At the Harvest on the Square, Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro commented on how much this grant means to the city he governs. Citizens in attendance echoed his sentiment through numerous standing ovations and applauses, actively showing their support for a the revitalization plan.
After the announcement former Senator George Mitchell, a Waterville native, expressed in a speech at the Harvest on the Square how necessary Colby and the Alfond Foundations’ revitalization efforts are to downtown.
He noticed that many Waterville residents are nostalgic, or even upset that the city is changing so quickly, but mentioned that the young people and young businesses of Waterville will drive the city forward, saying, “the past is the past.”
Regarding President Greene, Mitchell had a number of compliments towards him and his work downtown. He said, “One person can make a difference, and nobody exemplifies that more than David Greene.”
Clark was optimistic about the future of the Waterville Colby relationship, saying, “We are committed to the long haul…our vision is a vibrant Waterville.”
The College also stressed that the injection of money into downtown will only attract more investors, who are now starting to see the opportunities this revitalization brings. Colby alumnus Paul Boghossian `76 and Massachusetts businessman Mark McLeod are already starting this trend by investing in businesses and remodeling buildings downtown.
For existing businesses, this process will only mean increased customers and increased sales to Colby students, parents, and alumni.
A new website, www.colby.edu/downtown, documents the entire downtown revitilization process. In addition, articles about the rich history of the Waterville area, videos documenting the exciting changes happening to the city, and updates on the status of construction are posted on the site.
The website also lays out Colby’s tentative ten-step plan for revitalization in what’s called a “Road Map for Action.” Critical steps, such as the relocation of the farmers’ market and the introduction of a boutique hotel on Main Street, are already in progress. Some of them, however, such as a connection to the Kennebec River Waterfront and Main Street’s conversion to two-way traffic, are still in the very early planning phases.
Clark commented that Colby’s investments in downtown Waterville will eventually surpass $20 million. Fundraising, in the past, has also supported the construction of buildings. According to Clark and others, the construction of the Davis Building was supplemented by a donation of more than $10 million. Clark also indicated that the College plans to fundraise in order to support other downtown initiatives. According to the September 21, 2016 Faculty Meeting Minutes, Colby is currently in the “quiet phase” of a fundraising campaign. The same report also stated that Greene and the College are planning to launch a capital campaign that totals more than $650 million. It can be expected that the College will seek a massive gift for the student dormitory.
Other integrations on Main Street that Colby hopes to jumpstart include a renewed arts culture, a higher residential density, and a larger retail economy.
A notable dark spot in the city’s current downtown setup is the Head of the Falls Park. With this new grant, Colby hopes to construct a 900-foot long river walk with landscaping and lighting to showcase the natural beauty of the area.
Increased lighting on sidewalks and in parks should be a welcome addition for students, some of whom witness that the city center is crime-ridden and full of homeless people.
For Colby students, this revitalization means a more attractive downtown to visit. For many students, a vibrant downtown is the one thing missing from the College’s already stellar resumé. Charlie Beckman `18 calls the current feel of the Main Street as “empty.” According to him, “there’s just nothing there.”
Most students stay on campus because of financial reasons, or out of “laziness,” Henry Dodge `18 said. However, he likes the “nice little shops and restaurants,” and sees the value in good, affordable food outside the dining halls.
When asked if they would visit downtown more if it had a nicer appearance, both Beckman and Dodge stressed the fact that regular shuttles would be a necessity and that they would need greater incentives other than food.
Other current Colby students, of course, struggle to visualize the changes that will be made to downtown, especially the older ones who will not reap the benefits. Beckman is bewildered by it all: “It’s just insane to me that Colby has the means to completely rebuild a town and community.” When asked if they thought there was currently $20 million invested in the city, both Dodge and Beckman laughed, and said, “no chance.”
According to Dodge,“It’s like we’re turning into Middlebury, with that cute little town next door.” This isn’t necessarily an insult, given that Middlebury is one of the most prestigious liberal arts colleges in the country.
Greene, in his e-mail addressed to students, called the College “fortunate indeed” in reference to the grant. The City of Waterville is, also, fortunate indeed.