How Colby can help revitalize Waterville

On Sept. 14, 2014, David A. Greene was sworn in as our college’s 20th president. During his inauguration speech, President Greene spoke to a multitude of issues, including the contemporary challenges of higher education institutions, Colby’s unique qualities that poise it for greatness and a desire to foster relations between Colby and the greater Waterville community.

As you all know, Waterville was once a thriving mill town. At the turn of the twentieth century, the community was home to five shipyards, a sawmill, a gristmill, a cotton textiles plant, and a high-end dress shirt factory. While Waterville continued to thrive throughout much of the twentieth century, by 2002 the vast majority of mills and factories had closed, leaving only the Huhtamaki Plant (formerly the Keyes Fibre Company).

Waterville, like many other Maine towns, has struggled with the growing pains of globalization. Due to the mass outsourcing, Waterville was hit, especially after the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, with widespread unemployment and shuttering of local businesses. Look no further than Main Street, where Judy’s Wig Salon sits frozen in time, with several sun-stained, bewigged mannequin heads collecting dust, seemingly abandoned years ago.

In years past, Colby has made strides to create deeper connections with Waterville. The Colby-Waterville Alliance (CWA), a student-club, has hosted various events, including a Battle of the Bands and speakers. SGA has brought numerous Waterville vendors to campus for tastings and sent many students down for Date Week discounts. Many Waterville businesses, such as Railroad Cinemas, have also formed symbiotic relationships with various departments on campus. While I believe that these bonds have been helpful in bridging the gap between students and residents, I think Colby has missed out on an opportunity to use its massive endowment to bring long-lasting revitalization to our host city.

Colby’s residence on Mayflower Hill has fostered the much talked-about “Colby bubble.” It has meant that, aside from bar night or Walmart runs or dates at Amici’s or Mirakuya, students seldom spend long periods of time in the ‘Ville. I believe this is a huge waste.

Despite some decay, Waterville stands in many ways as a beautiful Maine city. During my freshman year, my few interactions with it subsisted of trips to Waterville Commons, stocking up at Walmart or going to Supercuts. But that was a waste, when there are plenty of local businesses on Main Street and elsewhere, like Jorgenson’s, Barrels, Meridians, and others. Why not create greater incentive for Colby students to support these small local businesses while incentivizing prospective entrepreneurs to set up shop?

While I applaud SGA and the Administration for recently announcing an organized shuttle to and from Waterville, I believe we can go further. Before anything else, I think we should invest in off-campus housing on Main Street.

There are a few reasons for this. The obvious ones are that it would put money in the hands of Waterville renters or realtors, while also creating attractive living arrangements for students not wanting to live on campus or in off-campus sports houses. But there are more subtle, equally beneficial reasons this is a great idea.

First, it would create a greater incentive for students to interact with Watervillians. If students are living in Waterville apartments, they’ll have more opportunities to visit local businesses and restaurants, bump into their neighbors, and be more inclined to visit events in Waterville proper. This will, in turn, give Watervillians greater, more positive exposure to Colby students. As opposed to seeing us as pompous instigators of house parties, they can come to see us in a more positive, less destructive light. More than that, with increased transportation to Waterville and with students living there, more students will be inclined to visit friends, support businesses, and change their perspectives on Waterville.

Second, it would promote new business in Waterville. With more students interacting with the local economy, and thus a greater cash injection, it will incentivize prospective business owners to start up shops that won’t just benefit students, but the broader community. In conjunction with that point, it would help raise property values of the houses and shops along Main Street, allowing those owners to have more expendable money for the future.

Third, it would create better student accountability in the city. During bar nights, students often get rowdy and misbehave because they don’t feel as connected to community and have less desire to act in a positive way. By having students live in the community, it will make their peers more inclined to be respectful.

Fourth, think of all the things Colby could do if we had an established place in the community. We could set up an I-Bike program in downtown that would help students navigate to and from the college. We could set up a community center that would not only allow students to congregate, but also have offices for students to help the community, whether that be SAT help, college advising or a new, convenient place for CCAK to mentor at-risk youth. These suggestions are just a few of the many services that Colby could provide to help students and community members.

Finally, it would help us attract prospective students. I remember driving to Boston after visiting Colby for my first time and stopping in Brunswick to see Bowdoin. While I don’t remember much about the campus, Brunswick’s Main Street cuts a clear picture in my mind: small boutique shops and masses of strolling students and townspeople on a brisk March day. It was nice to say the least, and a stark contrast from the appearance of Waterville. At a time when we’re taking out over $100 million dollars in bonds to improve facilities on campus for what I assume is going to become a mainstay for Colby’s recruitment drive for years to come, I feel like we could do more to make students happy that they’re spending four years of their lives in Waterville. By helping to revitalize Waterville, we can happily make our location part of Colby’s appeal.

Colby has done many things to help Waterville. Between our mentoring programs, patronage of local businesses and volunteering, we have placed ourselves in good stead to help the community. However, I would argue that Colby is not an integrated part of the community. There is a difference between helping a community and being a part of it. At the end of the day, we are still an institution that sits, mostly closed off, at the top of a hill overlooking the city. In order to become part of Waterville, we have to physically be a part of it. While some might decry my suggestions as gentrification, I would disagree. Gentrification comes with a connotation of changing something that is not worth saving or restoring. No, I want to revitalize Waterville. I want to bring this city back to its former glory. I want better connections between students and Watervillians. I want Colby to repay its debt to Waterville, whose townspeople not only raised a substantial amount of funds during the Great Depression to keep Colby from moving to Augusta, but also ceded us the 600 acres where we currently reside. The people of Waterville have stood by the College in its times of need and now its time to do the same.

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