Colby working to revitalize local community

“This is the time to act. This is Colby’s time.” These words were said by President David A. Greene during his inaugural speech last September. As he was welcomed to Mayflower Hill, Greene spoke about his commitment to help drive change for the Waterville community through “[partnering] with and [supporting] local leaders to accelerate the pace of improvements and stimulate economic growth and prosperity”. Greene emphasized Colby’s 200-year partnership with Waterville demonstrating our ongoing devotion to the town.

Photo Courtesy of Michael G. Seamans | The Morning Sentinel

Colby has purchased the Hains Building.                             Photo Courtesy of Michael G. Seamans | The Morning Sentinel

Now just one year later, President Greene has followed through with his promising words, having shown signs of significant progress towards a stronger relationship between Colby and the local community. He established and serves as chair of a steering committee which focuses on reviving the historic center, building on the arts and cultural assets, and spurring economic, retail, and job growth in Waterville. The committee consists of city officials, representatives from Waterville Main Street, and the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce, along with other organizations that are taking part in the discussion. In addition, Greene has met with business leaders, downtown organizations, community advisors, and has even flown in architects to explore options towards revitalizing the Waterville community. Through this partnership of civic and business leaders with Colby College, the committee hopes to make downtown Waterville a more vibrant, dynamic place for residents, visitors, and businesses.

The College’s involvement has been met with much enthusiasm from the community. Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro, who is also a part of the committee, is extremely pleased to see the College’s continued efforts to stimulate important areas of downtown Waterville, noting that “the city really has been crying for help from our nonprofit community” and now Colby has stepped up to the job. He emphasized how “this really is a dynamic partnership that will be a positive impact on all of the residents of Waterville as we work towards Waterville’s renaissance.” Similarly, City Councilor Dana Bushee, also a member of the committee, spoke positively about the relationship, saying, “I think this will add some energy to downtown. The goal is to have people living and working in downtown, and Colby’s really coming in and giving us the ability to make this happen.”

This summer, Colby acquired three buildings on Main Street in an effort to improve the look and feel of the area, making the gateway to the city more attractive. The first purchases of the Levine’s building on 9 Main Street and the Hains building on 173 Main Street were made in July. Both buildings were in disrepair and in desperate need of renovations. The two purchases combine to a sum of $420,000 for both buildings. Connecticut businessman Michael Soracchi was set to renovate the Levine’s building into apartments and retail businesses, however, he clashed with the city regarding financing, causing the project to be dropped. Robert Hains, the owner of the Hains building, stated in an email that, “Colby College’s acquisition will preserve a historic building. I salute their initiative to revitalize Main Street.” The buildings will remain on the city’s tax rolls, a controversial topic as the College has received criticism from much of their property being tax exempt due to being a non-profit institution.

Colby is under contract to purchase a third downtown building on 16-20 Main Street, next to Silver Street Tavern, that used to house Ink-4-Life,Top Dog Wireless, Waterville Hardware, and a number of apartments. After a fire in May 2013, the house has been uninhabitable with debris scattered everywhere. Charlies Giguere, owner of a neighboring property, is thrilled, saying that Colby “is a godsend for Waterville, because who else would have stepped up to the plate?” He noted how the College’s partnership to develop downtown Waterville will benefit both the College and Waterville, as Colby is competing with other colleges to attract students. Giguere compared Colby to Bowdoin, stating how Colby’s campus is as beautiful as Bowdoin’s but Waterville’s downtown needs revitalization, which is where Colby’s support will make a difference. Jennifer Olsen, Executive Director of Waterville Main Street, explained how buildings at the lower end of Main Street are gateways to the city from the south. Occupancy and use of those buildings will give the downtown a lift.

The attainment of three new buildings begs the question: “now what do we do with them?” Colby spokeswoman Ruth Jackson announced that Colby is “in a strategic planning process,” and that ”there are no solid plans for what to do with the properties, but they’re such important properties on Main Street [and]we are eager to do something with [them]”. She declared, “this is going to be a long process.” Members of the steering committee have been planning for almost a year, identifying the city’s needs in order to take Waterville to the next level. Possibilities for uses of the buildings include new retailers, a boutique hotel, small restaurants, anchor retail store, museum shop, gallery, and living spaces for college students and faculty. However, more exploration is needed to find the best uses for the buildings. In the future, there will be opportunities for community input on the functions of the buildings.

Beyond purchasing old, unused buildings, the College endeavors to further build upon the strengths already in place within the Waterville community. This includes improving or emphasizing the Waterville Opera House, Common Street Arts, Railroad Square Cinema, Maine International Film Festival, and the Colby Museum of Art. President Greene said that “Waterville is poised to once again become a great destination in central Maine, and Colby is pleased to be a significant investor in that future.” In the past, as executive president at the University of Chicago, Greene headed a similar $250 million community redevelopment project, revitalizing a ruined retail district north of campus. Isgro is optimistic to how things will continue to unfold for Waterville, remarking, “When you have people like David Greene willing to put his hand out and say, ‘We’re here – we’re all tied in this together,’ great things happen.”

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