The College shares Maine financial analysis impact report

Over the past several years, the College has worked to increase its investments in Waterville and the greater Maine community. These investments have ranged from the expensive construction of the Bill and Joan Alfond Main Street Commons to the implementation of a downtown civic engagement requirement. The College released a report on Oct. 15 detailing this growth and its economic impact on the surrounding community between Fiscal Years (FY) 2014 and 2018. 

“When we started the planning process, we did it in a way that is unusual for most colleges and universities. We wanted to invest in Colby for sure and make this a better experience for students and be able to attract great faculty here,” President David Greene said in a recent one-on-one interview with the Echo. “But we also wanted to do it in a way that would help the local community, and that’s the unusual part.”

Stressing the importance of community collaboration, Greene explained how the College partnered with the City of Waterville on this initiative. 

“We started this from the beginning by working with a group of 25 people: the mayor, the city manager, business leaders, civic leaders, all working together and saying what needs to be done in Waterville,” Greene said. “It wasn’t Colby’s plan. It was a plan we developed in partnership with city leaders.” 

Despite this years-long collaboration, many Waterville-area residents have criticized Colby for their tax-free status as an educational institution. In 2018, for instance, Winslow resident Mark Andre launched a campaign to ask Colby for a $15 million donation in order to decrease Waterville’s seemingly lofty mill rate. Greene, however, maintains that the College pays its fair share of taxes downtown. 

“This idea that Colby doesn’t pay any taxes is a myth,” Greene stated. “Yes, we are a tax-exempt institution, but we agree to pay property taxes on buildings in downtown Waterville.” 

According to the report, in FY18 the College generated approximately $8.7 million in taxes, a 58.6% increase from FY14. This number includes income, sales, and property taxes associated with employees and assets of the College. 

“If you look [where] the Alfond Commons is, that was an empty parking lot; no taxes generated from that spot at all,” Greene said. “We’re paying $65,000 a year in taxes on that building, which is twice what we are required to pay and we are doing that to help support the city.” 

Assessing economic impact is especially important for a state like Maine, which is facing a demographic crisis. Maine is ranked 45th in population growth compared to other states, and its death rate exceeds its birth rate. Nearly every Maine county has a higher death rate than birth rate, according to Greene.

Since 2015, the College’s investment in Waterville has turned around these downward growth trends. Analysis was conducted by economist Chuck Lawton, Ryan Wallace of the University of Southern Maine’s Maine Center for Business and Economic Research, and Michael Levert of Stepwise Data Research. 

“[There’s] a total change from where Waterville is now relative to the counties in which we live and the rest of Maine,” Greene said. “You are seeing that in the population increase, in higher wages in the area, new jobs, more investment in the city overall in ways that you aren’t seeing in other local areas.”

Businesses owners and employees in Waterville feel the positive presence of the College downtown. Kevin Joseph is originally from Waterville and has owned You Know Whose Pub for the past 19 years. Joseph will be opening a new fast-casual Mexican restaurant on Main Street called Guacamoles. In an interview with the Echo, Joseph described the development of downtown. 

“I think the overall [impact] on Main Street itself has improved immensely,” Joseph said. “Everyone’s jumping on board too, not just only [to] help Colby, but [to] help Waterville in the sense that it’s more inviting to come down to.”

Nikki Sites, a barista at Selah Tea, has lived in Waterville all her life and has noticed a direct impact of Colby’s downtown presence on business. In an interview with the Echo she expressed excitement about improvements downtown.

“It’s been nice, especially to see for local business like here,” Sites said, referring to the increased volume of students downtown and at Selah Tea. 

Growing student engagement on Main Street is merely one benefit of the College’s continued investment in the community. According to Greene, homeowners also benefit from Colby’s initiatives. 

“For many of the people who have been in Waterville, [sic] their home value has never gone up and for most families that is the single most important source of wealth,” Greene said. “Now, seeing [these] home values going up [should allow] for many of these long-term homeowners to sell their properties at a higher value than they were [able to] before.” 

As the number of long-term residents in Waterville seems to increase, so too do those numbers associated with shorter-term guests. According to the report, last year the College received 34,500 visitors. Greene described how these visitors contribute to the Waterville economy by spending money on gas, shopping at stores, and eating out. However, one area Greene hopes to see improvement is in the number of overnight visitors. 

“When you look at Waterville versus other towns in Maine we are very low on whether people stay overnight in Waterville,” Greene said. 

Greene hopes that the construction of a new hotel downtown will incentivize visitors to stay in Waterville overnight. 

“The hotel’s going to be a positive, that’s going to be right down on Main Street, so that should be a very interesting aspect to downtown Waterville,” Joseph added, emphasizing his excitement about increasing visitors on Main Street and the impact it will have on his business. 

Beyond attracting visitors, the College believes an increasingly vibrant Waterville will also entice students and faculty. In an interview with the Echo, Vice President for Communication for the College Ruth J. Jackson expressed the importance of drawing people to Colby. 

“All of this work is really helping to attract the best faculty [and] staff to the area. These are people that have a lot of options of where to work and we want them here, and that has a direct impact on the experience you have as students.”

Although students are attracted to Waterville to attend Colby and currently 15 percent of the College’s alumni live in Maine, according to Greene, a majority of students who chose to remain in Maine don’t stay in Waterville. 

“We’ve talked about whether there are things that we can do to help encourage people to stay in Waterville,” Greene said, noting that this is another area that can benefit

from improvement. 

Nevertheless, residents note that this is a giant step of improvement for Waterville. Jim LaLiberty, President of Waterville Creates! and lifelong Waterville resident, reflected on this milestone at an Oct. 15 press conference. 

“[This is a] historical inflection point for the city of Waterville,” LaLiberty said.

While this report is simply an analysis of an ongoing project rather than a final assessment of the College’s success, Greene is still proud of the College’s accomplishments. 

“When you look over five years and say, ‘we’ve had a billion and a half dollars worth of economic impact in Maine from our own little college,’ that’s a lot,” Greene said. “I think we should feel good about that.”