Empty store fronts persist at 173 Main Street in Waterville

Nestled on the corner of Main Street and Appleton, the former Hains building sits starkly barren in downtown Waterville. Purchased by the college in 2015, the College website boasts that the property “is being renovated as a mixed-use commercial building with office space and ground-floor retail.” Rumors of a Starbucks, Renys, or even a Trader Joe’s moving into that retail space had circulated amongst students as they speculated about Colby’s efforts to “revitalize” the downtown area. And until recently, a sign hanging in the window of the ground floor proudly exclaimed that it would be “Opening in the summer of 2017!” caused many Mules to believe that the new business would be present by the time they returned from summer break. Nevertheless, the storefront remains empty.

Director of Commercial Real Estate, Paul Ureneck, clarified in an email interview with the Echo that “The building was completed on schedule in August, which is what the signage refers to.” Indeed, nearly 15 College employees moved to the second floor of the Hains building in mid-August, and CGI, an independent technology consulting company, has been set to move in “soon”, the Echo reported.

Colby’s vice president of of planning, Brian Clark, has had a long history working to effect town and/or city revitalization. He worked with President David Greene at the University of Chicago through the university’s efforts to revive Hyde Park, and was hired by Colby in 2014. In an interview with the Echo, he explained the process through which CGI plans to move into the Hains Building; one that is most likely familiar to him.

“CGI will occupy the third floor, likely beginning mid-December,” Clark said. “As they continue to ramp up their hiring over time, they have cascading options with the building so as they outgrow the third floor, they will take over the fourth floor and as they outgrow that, they will ultimately occupy the second floor, at which point we will find additional space for Colby staff.”

This optimism regarding the eventual growth and revitalization of Waterville is not uncommon among Colby employees, and even downtown residents themselves.

Ureneck described his excitement about recent developments in the area. “Several new shops and restaurants have opened downtown recently, including Itali-ah, Enchanted Herbs and Teas, Proper Pig, Edward Jones Investments, a new antique mall in the Hathaway complex and a new antique shop on Appleton Street,” Ureneck commented. “It’s encouraging to see new businesses opening downtown alongside the investments Colby is making and the feedback we are hearing from property owners and prospective retailers is the infusion of new workers and new residents (when the student apartment complex opens) is beginning to drive new retail activity.”

Itali-ah, the aforementioned Italian restaurant, opened on Main Street in September. Owner Jennifer Bergeron expressed her excitement about the College’s investment in Waterville at that time, “a strong belief in the renewal of downtown Waterville was the impetus for the restaurant side of the business.” Since Itali-ah’s opening, one more business has moved into town–the aforementioned antique mall. Enchanted Herbs and Teas, Proper Pig, and Edward Jones Investments all opened within the past year.

Other local business owners have expressed their concerns about the Colleges revitalization efforts, specifically the retail space on the ground floor of the Hains building. In an October interview with the Echo, Bobby McGee, the owner of Selah Tea coffee shop – which neighbors the 173 Main Street property-  described his worries on the matter.

“I feel like [Waterville residents’] voices have been heard but I don’t know if any action has been taken based on what they’re saying,” Mcgee said.  McGee is especially worried about the lack of parking resulting from the new dorm’s location on the Concourse parking lot, and the potential business threat a new coffee shop on the ground floor of the Hains Building would pose.

“One of the things Colby has been very cognizant of is the disruption of downtown life that construction causes, particularly with Selah Tea (understanding that they are severely impacted by the construction), “ Clark reassured, “We have used them for a lot of the downtown events in terms of catering.”

Nevertheless, local businesses and Colby students alike are interested to find out which retailers will be moving downtown, and the impact they will have on the surrounding area. “I’ve heard lots of rumors about a Trader Joe’s going in somewhere downtown,” Clark said, “I can’t really give you any details on specific retailers, only because we are in negotiations right now. What I will tell you is this: we are very close to announcing our new retail client, which will be occupying the space on the right of the [of the Hains building]. Our hope is that by early next year, so after Jan Plan, there will be something substantial there.”

Clark admits that marketing the space has been difficult, but a nice challenge. “Retailers are a little tricky-they want to see progress,” Clark said, “We have been very purposeful about trying to communicate through the media [about the progress that is going on downtown] and have been working off student suggestions, understanding what they want to see opening up downtown. With that in mind, we have been actively recruiting and evaluating different options for that and other retail spaces, located along Main street and on the ground floor of the new dorm.” Clark added that he expects “next summer, when the dorm is about to open, that is when all the retail will flood in. That is what we saw in Chicago, and what I expect will happen here.”

Clark and Ureneck share a seemingly undying optimism about the College’s revitalization efforts within the town; an optimism that prevails even when results are not completely evident.

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