Administrators seek transformations in College’s civic engagement for developing downtown dorm

As further developments continue to be made in the construction of Colby’s downtown dorm, blueprints and renderings of the residence hall and floor layouts are expected to be released soon. Yet much of the focus for Colby Administration is directed towards aspects for which there can be no blueprints; in determining the specific impact such a move will have on both the relationship between, as well as the individual communities of, Colby and Waterville.

A rendering of the downtown dorm that will contain student and faculty apartments on the upper floors, as well as common spaces, and retail areas on the first floor. The initial rendering of the dorm shows a modern design utilizing lots of glass, which will stand in contrast to the old, brick buildings currently on Main street. Photo courtesy of Colby Communications.


In an interview with The Colby Echo, Vice President of Planning Brian Clark emphasized the importance of continuing ongoing dialogue as the construction of the downtown building progresses, specifically about what having a greater Colby presence on Main Street truly entails and the prevailing concerns associated with its installment. “I think the downtown stuff is one vehicle for these concerns,” Clark explained. “But I think the concerns are actually much broader and much deeper-rooted in the relationship between Colby and Waterville.”

Dean of the College Karlene Burrell-McRae ’94 also acknowledged that Clark’s concerns are embedded within the Colby-Waterville relationship.  “I think the Waterville community has a sense of who they think we are, as Colby: we’re rich, we’re white, we’re privileged,” Burrell-McRae told the Echo. “[But] I think there is something different about having all of our community here [on campus] and engaging with Waterville, versus being able to have some of our community downtown.”
To unify the culture of both communities, both Burrell-McRae and Clark believe the solution is through the opportunity for intentional and ongoing partnership the downtown dorm offers. “The civic engagement piece is going to be the biggest bridge we can have in this building,” Clark said. He explained that it was important “because those relationships are going to be the ones that start to integrate and make this mixed-used development with students living there really a part of that community,” Clark said. “It’s more about what happens inside the building, and less about the building itself.”

In the long run, Colby administrators hope that the focus of civic engagement in the residence hall will promote and foster certain behaviors and norms that shift the current perception of community outreach within Colby culture. “We are actually rethinking what civic and community engagement should look like at Colby overall,” Burrell-McRae said. “It’s not just about downtown. The residence hall downtown is just a part of the overall aspect of civic engagement.”

Burrell-McRae explained that the administration wants to help a shift in the Colby mindset as it applies to civic engagement. She stressed the reciprocal nature of engagement in this context given that the downtown building first and foremost represents, and therefore must operate as, a partnership between communities. “It’s about being able to have us learn from community members, and community members learn from us,” said Burrell-McRae. “Often when we think about issues of civic engagement, or some people talk about community service, the talk tends to be more one-sided […] I think there is so much we can learn from the community but we currently are not set up to have that kind of reciprocal relationship.”

In attempt to drive the philosophy of a more intentional partnership between the Colby and Waterville communities, Clark disclosed ideas for structuring the civic engagement around the academic and mixed-used components offered within the building. Clark mentioned ideas like introducing a new research or fellowship program or having teaching spaces in the building which could support curricular pieces. “One of the leading ideas coming out of the community is […] to have a much more intentional program that is supported and has support for faculty and fellows to really run through the residence itself,” Clark told the Echo. “That could take different shapes over different years depending on who is in there and what their interests are.”
Additionally, Clark explained that groups within the Waterville community will have opportunities to utilize and engage within the building as well, specifically through a large gathering space to be used for community forum. “The thing we heard, almost the most, [from the community] is that there is no great place for community or nonprofit groups to meet or to have an event downtown,” Clark said. “So the community forum is designed to meet that need, and to really welcome those groups into the space.”

Clark also disclosed intentions to host city council meetings in the community forum as well, offering the city a very public and visible space for transactions and voices to be heard. “So it’s not just Colby and Colby civic engagement on Main Street,” Clark explained. “It becomes an intersection of the community and the civic life in Waterville with Colby, all coming together in this space.”

Through incorporating civic engagement into the different multi-purpose aspects of the building, Clark hopes that it will not only foster the mindset of community partnership administrators hope for, but moreover transition such values into a self-sustaining culture of its own. For Burrell-McRae, this culture must have a strong foundation built on the continuance of thoughtful and purposeful interactions between Colby and the city of Waterville. “The [downtown dorm] is asking our students to stretch and think about the extension of our community, in terms of living, learning, and growing in Waterville,” Burrell-McRae said. “Part of the beauty about the revitalization is that it’s meant to be intentional and ongoing engagement with our community.”

Many students, however, have vocalized concerns about the downtown dorm installment, specifically that a greater Colby presence may actually cause damage to the already strained Colby-Waterville relationship. In an anonymous student-wide survey recently conducted by The Colby Echo, a little over 27% of respondents affirmed that they would absolutely consider living in the downtown dorm, whereas over 43% of respondents stated they are undecided and 30% showed no interest.

The majority of responses showed that most student excitement is for the increased opportunity for upscale student housing, as well as more convenient access to stores, restaurants, and other local business amenities in Waterville. Less than five percent of respondents stated that becoming more involved with the local community is what excites them most about the downtown dorm. As for the concerns students find to be most prevailing in extending the Colby into Waterville, the overwhelming majority of respondents stated them to be transportation concerns and isolation from the College (over 43% and 38%, respectively).
“I want to hope for good things,” one student wrote in the comment section of the survey. “But almost every conversation I’ve had with a Waterville resident who has a lot of information on this project has gone the same way; their fears far outweigh their excitement, as do my own.” Another student vocalized similar concerns, that Colby’s presence downtown may actually be detrimental for its relationship with the city, commenting, “there is potential for good with this project, but I’m concerned that if executed as planned it could perpetuate the stigma and misconception that all Colby students are wealthy and elitist, and further the divide between Colby and the Waterville community.”

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