Waterville residents weigh in on new downtown dorm

What happens when two hundred students from a notoriously isolated college campus are transferred to a dorm right in the middle of downtown? Colby and Waterville will know the answer to this question soon enough, as Colby’s newest dorm is set to open in the fall of 2018. As part of Colby’s new initiative to revitalize downtown Waterville, the dorm will not only house students but will also serve as a community gathering space and retail center. However, though this is a Colby initiative, there are always two sides to a story. While the development will benefit Colby staff and students, what impact will it have on Waterville residents and businesses?

For residents, outlook on the project was generally positive with some reservations. Waterville resident, special education teacher, and community volunteer Paula Raymond helped facilitate Saturday’s South End Cleanup, which brought Colby students and community students together for a morning of volunteering. She said the dorm presents a unique opportunity for Colby students to continue organizing and helping out in the community. “I think it’s an awesome idea, because it just brings a different flavor to the neighborhood. It helps the children see new possibilities.” She said that her vision is to bring Colby students into the South End to interact with kids in the area– not necessarily in an academic setting, but in more casual games.

 

Ken Eisen ’73, a Colby graduate and Waterville resident who owns property in the area, was more reserved about the dorm’s benefits. He said that Colby must “continue to respect the town’s vitality and soul,” and not treat Waterville as a subdivision of the school. Though he expressed concern that local voices would be lost in the dorm’s planning and execution, Eisen also stated that he views the dorm as a good and necessary development for the downtown area, and that it is nice to see the town and school come together. Thomas student Matthew Crane also said he was worried that local needs would be overshadowed by development. For example, how will new and more expensive retail stores affect those residents who rely on access to low-cost goods within walking distance of downtown? Crane pointed out that Waterville public transportation system isn’t comprehensive enough to support these residents if new retail shops push out low-cost options. He emphasized that though this may not happen, it’s important to consider in the planning process.

Some of those who will be most affected by the dorm are business owners already in the area. More retail space in the bottom of the building will prompt more commerce, but it will also introduce more competition for Waterville already-small customer base. Bobby McGee, owner of Selah Tea, has lived in Waterville since December of 2006. He has two small children, and said that the downtown development is a great opportunity to bring more charm and culture into the area. However, he worried that local concerns would not be acted upon. “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. So I think they’ve been listened to but I don’t know if they’ve been heard, heard being actions put in place to help the concerns… [he] is afraid Colby won’t actually listen.” One issue which has consumed conversation around the dorm has been parking– the new building is taking away spaces from the northern end of downtown, and McGee worries that his customers won’t have a way to park close to his shop.

Especially in winter, Selah Tea’s busiest time of year, close and accessible parking are essential to maintaining steady revenue and relationships with customers in the area. “Our normal customers are coming in and can’t find parking… Waterville has a population of 15,000. I can understand circling around in Boston, where there are two million people, but in Waterville you shouldn’t have to circle around multiple times to find parking. “Customers shouldn’t have to circle; it’s not Boston.” Since construction began on the dorm and the parking lot closest to the building was taken away, Selah Tea has seen a 12% drop in revenue.

Though the transition period has been less than encouraging, McGee said the downtown development does provide an opportunity for sales. Colby faculty and students make up 35% of his customer base, and closer offices and residences could encourage more visitors. “With more students across the street, if we play it right hopefully we can capitalize on that.”“If we play it right…” Additionally, he said that the Malcolm Porter, who co-owns Enchanted, an herb and tea shop on Main Street, also said he is excited for the new opportunities provided by the dorm development. He stated that though separation between a college and its town is normal, it’s encouraging that Colby and Waterville are working together to forge a closer relationship.

While development downtown has been a highly visible and exciting venture for the Colby community, it’s important to keep in mind the logistics of the move. While the Colby bubble slowly deflates, continuing dialogue will be necessary to ensure that the dorm and retail initiatives are beneficial for all parties involved.