Student, faculty desires reflected in downtown forums

Although nothing was presented for approval to the Board of Trustees at the February 2 and 3 meetings with regard to downtown, the College’s Vice President of Planning Brian Clark said the Board was pleased with the direction the College has been moving. “The Board has been in- credibly supportive of the work we have been doing on Main Street since the be- ginning,” Clark said in an interview.

Colby has chosen developer Olympia Companies, for the hotel downtown and continues to make progress in planning. Other Colby-owned downtown proper- ties are gaining traction, despite not having a definite use as of yet. The building that previously held a hardware store, 14-20 Main Street, is currently seeking developers to create a residential or commercial space with a retail component, according to Clark. The College hopes developer money will fund this project as an investment to their business, saving Colby money and creating precedent for new independent businesses downtown.

The CGI offices, formerly known as Collaborative Consulting, are likely to open in July, 2018 and also harbor multiple retail components on the ground floor. Following snowstorms this week, CGI’s ribbon-cutting and technology night has been postponed to February 21 at 5 P.M.

Forums
As there are still decisions to be made on which businesses will ultimately be present downtown, the College hosted multiple faculty and student-focused forums through- out JanPlan. These forums aimed to allow members of the Colby community to voice what they value most about their current experiences downtown and what they hope to see in the future.

“Although the market ultimately controls what those [retail] spaces will be, the meetings helped us to prioritize the businesses we would seek out,” said Clark, saying that the conversations were “phenomenal” and “thoughtful.”

According to Clark, many students emphasized their want for advancements that supported healthy, active lifestyles, including an improved trail system on the waterfront, outdoor apparel stores, and healthy food options. He also noted that these sentiments were consistent with those of the faculty.

When asked about preferences for national versus local retailers in Waterville, Clark also said the students noted that they “support local retailers and want to keep their dollars here as much as possible, but the lack of a known brand downtown in many ways makes it really hard to make students think about and visualize going downtown.” Despite the Colby community’s inclination to support small Maine businesses, there is a demonstrated hesitation among students to seek out products at stores on Main Street that they know are conveniently available at a well-known store like Wal-Mart.

Clark said his instinct was that many of the faculty members present at the forums lived in Waterville, though he said it is still a priority to explore how the town can become more attractive to the sizable group of faculty who commute from Portland.

Downtown Student Complex
Similar forums will take place with regard to the design of the downtown student dorm, the rest of which was held February 15 in Page Commons and will be covered by the Echo in upcoming issues.

The College has hired Ayers Saint Gross Architects, of Baltimore, Maryland, to lead the design of the student complex. The firm has ample experience with projects on both urban and rural campuses, in addition to designing buildings that combine residential and retail space, which fits with what the College envisioned for the Main Street dorm location.

Clark said the downtown apartments will reflect “a level of finish and quality that isn’t necessarily seen in other living spaces on campus.” A after many visits to other colleges and residential spaces, the planning group began to see the importance of finer details, like stone counter tops versus plastic, according to Clark. The apartments will be four to six bedroom units with full kitchens. Each bedroom will house one person and will be outfitted with a full-sized bed, Clark said.

In addition to student living spaces, the downtown complex will have four faculty and four staff apartments, as well as the College’s new Center for Civic Engagement. Clark envisions that this will help create a more “robust” community downtown.

The Center for Civic Engagement, which Clark noted might be renamed, will potentially be used as a teaching and public meeting space that will be beneficial to both the Colby and Waterville community. Above all, the Center will emphasize the civic engagement program that College administrators anticipate to be central to the residential experience in the student complex.

“We want to be much more intentional about the off-campus student experience,” Clark said.

Currently, about 120 students live in rented off-campus homes and apartments. For many, the off-campus experience is central to their progression as a Colby student, and the autonomy of running one’s own home is described as a maturing experience. Despite this, it has been speculated that once the downtown dorm opens the College will cease to allow students to seek out their own residences off-campus.

Although no full decision has been made, “it is an option the [administration] is very much conidering,” Clark said. He also said the downtown dorm will likely hold 200 people, and it is possible that the administration will wait to have it at full occupancy before considering to allow students to find other off-campus housing.

Gentrification of Waterville
The issue of gentrification in Waterville is something that “was brought up at the very first planning meeting,” according to Clark, and has been a big consideration in the College’s process. Given that some of the communities that are closest to the downtown areas are also the most impoverished in the city, and many do not have access to cars and do lots of their shopping at stores like Family Dollar and Goodwill, “the future of downtown needs to be cognizant of this,” Clark said.

Colby hopes to find retailers that will accommodate the wants and needs of students and faculty downtown, but it also strives to keep in-tact institutions necessary to Waterville locals and to complement, not replace, what is already existing downtown, Clark explained.

From a financial perspective, when retail spaces become revitalized, there will likely be a rise in the price of rent downtown, but Clark argued that this will ultimately be a positive step for the town. “With rent at about $8 per square foot…it does not satisfy the capital dollars it requires to [make business owners] invest in their properties,” Clark explained. “I think there needs to be a little bit of growth there to help the profitability of current retailers and incentivize them to invest in their buildings,” he said.

Clark said he has met with the Poverty Action Coalition and the South End Neighborhood Association, as well as faith-based and other groups to best understand the needs of the local community. “Having students who are concerned about these issues and engage in them in a deep way has been really informative for us,” Clark said. There will be ample opportunities throughout the spring for members of the community to continue to give input to the planning groups.