Isgro’s first month in office as mayor of Waterville

Nick Isgro has officially been Waterville’s 53rd mayor for only a short month, but the future already looks promising. Isgro, a Republican, was inaugurated on Jan. 6. He came to the Colby Museum of Art on Saturday, Feb. 7 to talk with the Echo about his first month in office and the City’s priorities going forward. 

In the past four weeks, Isgro has met many people, including Colby College President David Greene. Not having served on City Council prior to his election, Isgro feels it is crucial for him to get to know the lay of the land early on in his tenure. “It’s certainly not my style to come in and kind of barge in and start…taking the approach of a bull in a china shop,” Isgro said. Instead, he plans to “figure out where we need to start [and] what projects are already in motion, and really take my time to make sure that it’s a thoughtful process.”

Although Isgro is new to city government, he is not new to the area, he grew up in Waterville and Oakland, and now lives in the home that his grandfather built after moving here from New York in 1960. In Waterville, which has both a mayor and a city manager, the mayoral position is part-time, and Isgro maintains his job as a controller at Skowhegan Savings Bank.

Isgro and Waterville’s previous mayor, Karen Heck ’74, have both identified economic development as a continued top priority in the coming term. He sees this as a unique time for Waterville: a time that presents a number of opportunities for increasing prosperity if the City chooses to capitalize on them. “I think what I’m learning is that right now there seems to be this critical mass of just amazing people and leaders…converging on Waterville all at one time.”

Revitalization has not always been the lightning rod issue that it is today. Isgro said, “I can remember Waterville when I was a kid. It was just a booming town and it was all kinds of…small, locally owned boutique shops. There was not a lot of big chains everywhere.” At that time, he said half the town was employed at Scott Paper Company and the Hathaway Shirt Factory. The decimation of the City’s manufacturing sector in the 80s and 90s with the closure of these major employers hit the local economy hard, and it is still recovering.

Isgro said that coalitions such as Waterville Creates!, which are working to make Waterville a destination for the arts, are helping the City’s economic comeback. He also noted the importance of focusing on “local entrepreneurs and [bringing] back jobs that pay people well, because ultimately that’s what’s going to be the lynchpin of making all these other things succeed, is if people have money in their pocket,” Isgro said.

In addition to the industrial sector, Isgro observed how residential neighborhoods have experienced decay as well. “When I was campaigning, it was amazing to me not only how many for sale signs there were but also…the foreclosures that you don’t really see until you walk right up on them,” Isgro said. Many city officials are in agreement over the need to reassess code enforcement and zoning in order to stop the current trend of single and two-family houses being divided into four and five-unit apartments. Such a shift would favor owner-occupied housing. “Those are the typical homeowners who are going to obviously spend a lot more time and attention to property maintenance and keeping up with their properties, which ultimately makes the neighborhoods more attractive for other people,” Isgro said.

Isgro suspects that Trafton Realty, owners of the building that is home to Mid-State Machine on the corner of West River and Trafton Roads, may also play a role in the City’s economic future. Mid-State Machine employs 78 people who make an average salary of $46,000 per year, according to an article published in the Morning Sentinel last September. Isgro said Trafton already had plans for another 200,000-square-foot warehouse or manufacturing building, and that these types of jobs, combined with new apprenticeship programs being designed by the Central Maine Growth Council, are “the things that kind of need to line up in order to make one big success.” The Trafton project did stir debate last year, when the company proposed building a new exit on Interstate 95 that many residents opposed.

However, creating new jobs is not the only piece of the puzzle, according to Isgro. “I think a lot of times you’ll hear you know someone say, ‘Oh we really just need to focus on you know getting these manufacturing jobs,’ or ‘We really need to focus on…the Main Street arts.’ To me, it all plays off each other,” and Waterville “needs to play an active role,” Isgro said.

An important aspect to this, Isgro said, is accepting the changing face of development. “Manufacturing today isn’t probably going to be a paper mill with 300 employees or 500 employees, it’s going to be…maybe an office with 5 or 6 employees and a 3D printer.” It is the City’s job, he said, to come up with more creative ways to capture money. “I don’t think we’ve pushed the envelope. To me, if the state isn’t at least asking us questions about what we’re doing, we’re probably not doing enough,” he said with a laugh.

Isgro also discussed the relationship between the City and the College, which he said has changed over time. With the local economy down, Isgro said, “I think sometimes places like Colby can be kind of made the boogeyman; [people] say, well they should be paying taxes, and that was certainly a big issue on the campaign and is still an issue going on.” When his parents were growing up in Waterville, Isgro said “there was never this kind of feeling of separation…Everybody in Waterville knew they could come to campus and there was much more of an integration.”

In his first month, Isgro has met twice with the Mayor’s Coalition, a group of mayors representing several cities in Maine that look at current legislation at the state level and form opinions as a group to unify some of the state’s economic centers. Isgro hopes to get more residents involved in city politics by organizing casual public forums to address issues like budgeting and financing. “I think if people understand what we’re doing to make these decisions, they’re a lot more likely to…realize they have a personal stake in the outcome… every councilor’s vote matters to each and every one of us that’s here paying taxes,” Isgro said.

Overall, Isgro said he loves the new job. “I love it more than I thought that I would. There’s this real fresh excitement about meeting all these people and finding out all these amazing things that are happening that a lot of them I didn’t even know about and feeling like that I can contribute to some of the success that I think we’re about to have.”

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