Colby plans boutique hotel on revered downtown site

The College is starting to put together its planned vision of a revitalized downtown Waterville. Numerous buildings on Main Street, including the former Elks Building at 13-15 Appleton Street, have already been razed and will serve as parking for future Colby needs. Meanwhile, the northeast corner of The Concourse, will be the location of a new downtown student dormitory. The College has recently announced that the former Levine’s clothing store, located on 9 Main Street, will be razed, and Colby plans to develop a boutique hotel and restaurant in its place.

Levine’s has been a part of Waterville’s downtown since 1904, yet it will soon be reduced to rubble. Colby College Director of Communications Kate Carlisle stated in an interview with The Morning Sentinel, that demolition is expected to take just three to four weeks. Although many locals are sad to see the historic structure go, Carlisle calls the demolition “a great sign of momentum and progress.”

The project is still in the development phase and without an architect, but, according to Vice President of Planning Brian Clark, the College has always envisioned a hotel there since the conception of revitalization. In an interview with The Colby Echo, Clark claimed they are currently in the process of “crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s” on the project and are nearly ready to move on to searching for an architect and developer.

Kiernan Somers | The Colby Echo

                                                                                                                                                                    Kiernan Somers | The Colby Echo

Older Waterville citizens will remember Levine’s as a landmark building and staple men’s clothing store. They will also remember the days when there were three hotels and two movie theatres downtown. It was a time when businesses were booming, factories were producing, and citizens were prospering. Now, the old Levine’s building, like many structures in Waterville, has been “vacant and blighted for decades,” according to Clark.

While renovations to the historic building were considered as options, Clark called a restoration process on the building “cost prohibitive” to Colby’s overall vision of revitalization. The building, like the others that have been torn down by the College in the process, faces severe environmental challenges and structural issues. Oddly enough, Levine’s was actually a combination of five separate structures and was even a flea market at one point, which is why there are so many unique nooks and crannies in the landmark. To an urban developer,  this makes renovation projects inconceivable.

Although the building will soon be demolished, Colby plans on maintaining the site’s cultural heritage due to its importance to many Waterville residents. In an interview with the Sentinel, Carlisle stated “We’re very mindful of the importance of 9 Main St. and its history to generations of Waterville residents, and we’re considering how to honor that heritage in the site’s redevelopment.” Clark, in his interview with the Echo, specifically noted that the hotel will “pay homage to the history of that site through architecture in uniqueness.” He also mentioned that the College has saved a number of artifacts from the building, in case they become useful to the new hotel. Clark noted that Colby is searching for the right balance between a vibrant, new, and exciting Waterville and the preservation of a rich and proud history.

In addition, the College has used their demolition project as an opportunity to give back to the community. They’ve donated numerous items, including 40 doors, two grates, four medicine cabinets, four light fixtures, and a chair, among other things, to the Habitat for Humanity Re-Store on Silver Street.

While Colby is doing its part in the revitalization downtown, its ultimate goal is to attract private investors for future retail businesses. Clark noted that this process has already begun, with the emergence of new food retailers such as The Proper Pig and Christopher Hastings Confections. He wants Colby’s “catalyzing” revitalization project to “fundamentally change the ecosystem” in Waterville with a fresh and new downtown that specifically promotes art and development. The boutique hotel will, according to Clark in his interview with the Sentinel, bring “a critical influx of visitors to Main Street to dine, shop and attend events.”

Yet several critics have continued to criticize Colby’s actions. Plenty of Waterville citizens are nervous that efforts will fail or that the area will change too much. One commenter on an online discussion forum sarcastically commented that they should rename downtown “Colbyville,” and they are not the only one with this mentality. Clark mentioned to the Echo that some “people don’t like change,” and maintained his position that the College is revitalizing a lost community that was once vibrant and full of life.

He also stated that Colby’s vision is a collaborative effort with a large number of influential institutions in Waterville, including Thomas College, and the actual governmental body of the city. He called it a “shared vision for the future.” In addition, he noted Colby’s gorgeous campus, and said “we know how to build beautiful buildings” in references to the College’s construction efforts downtown. To him, what stands on Mayflower Hill is evidence that Main Street will be aesthetically pleasing.

But Clark’s future might be a return to the past. He noted Colby’s past relationship with Waterville, and how the connection between the College and the city has diminished overtime. According to him, citizens were actually nervous and sad when the College left downtown for Mayflower Hill so many decades ago. Ironically, citizens are now nervous for students to come back.

The College was nervous as well when they left, as the downtown was once such an important part of Colby culture. At the time of movement, they envisioned a kind of majestic boulevard stretching between Main Street and Mayflower Hill, something students cannot even imagine today. In fact, if you drive down the road once envisioned to be a boulevard or loop (Mayflower Hill Drive and Gilman Street), you “are greeted with a do not enter sign,” according to Clark. Now, students rarely visit downtown, and many even have a negative view of the city their College calls home. Clark hopes this will change with increasing Colby-Waterville relations.

These relations will have to improve, as there will be a large mass of students living downtown for the first time in a long while, in a student dormitory that will undoubtedly change the culture on and off campus. Clark envisions the students living downtown being involved in a program specifically for “civic engagement and community partnership.” He also sees students making the trip to downtown more often with increasing shuttle service, perhaps with the use of mobile app technology. Although there are some geographical humps to get over, Clark has a long-term goal of Colby students seeing downtown as an extension of campus.

Clark came to Colby in 2014 from the University of Chicago along with President Greene. He is originally from Maine and oversees a number of strategic initiatives for the College, including the exciting downtown revitalization project.

When a Waterville resident sees abandoned factories and buildings, Clark sees a gorgeous river, a regional center, and economic opportunity. He sees a complete block of useful buildings all the way down Main Street from Mainely Brews Restaurant and Brewhouse to the river. He also wants visitors and residents to feel safer. To him, “all the ingredients are there” for a bustling and revitalized downtown.

Colby’s announcement to demolish the former Levine’s building and turn it into a 42-room hotel is another ingredient for a revitalized downtown. The College is critical in efforts to find people to invest in Waterville, and it is showing its immense interest in the city by investing valuable money and energy. It’s an exciting time for a city hoping to someday be a forward and modern center for arts and business while paying homage to its once vibrant and industrial past. 

The Levine's Building.               Kiernan Somers | The Colby Echo

The Levine’s Building.                                                                                                                           Kiernan Somers | The Colby Echo