Greene convenes committee to discuss local revitalization initiative

In the past, Waterville has been a thriving society in its own right, largely supported by the paper and clothing industries ubiquitous to Central Maine. “When I was a little kid, Scott Paper was churning away over in Winslow and we had the Hathaway mill producing shirts,” Mayor of Waterville Nick Isgro recalled, “People had money in their pockets….We had people coming here who weren’t just coming for the services provided—they were coming here to work, and they made good wages.”

However, over the past few decades, the city has witnessed a loss of industry following the closure of Winslow’s Scott Paper mill in 1997 and C.F. Hathaway Company’s Waterville factory in 2002. These two events had a stagnating effect on a once-vibrant Main Street. “[Downtown] used to be full up and down with a lot of small, locally owned boutique type shops,” Isgro said. “Once the jobs dried up, we took a really big hit because people didn’t have money in their pockets, and at some point, you can only support so much of the local business.”

During the height of the Great Depression, Colby College was located on a small tract of land between the Maine Central Railroad Company and one of the state’s largest pulp mills along the Kennebec River. Following unfavorable reports by local surveyors, newly appointed President of the College Franklin W. Johnson looked to relocate to Augusta, and Waterville responded with collective outcry—the _Sentinel_ exclaiming, “Save Colby, Move Johnson.”

Despite financial hardship, the city fought hard to preserve what columnist Ima Wanderer deemed Waterville’s “greatest industry.” The Citizen’s Committee pledged to raise some $100,000 to keep Colby within its limits, and in 1931, ten different landowners gave the 600 acres that constitute the Mayflower Hill campus. The citizens rallied to keep the College in Waterville, and presiding over the decision, the Hon. H.C. Marden said, “If it is the sentiment of this gathering that Colby will stay with new support and a chance to prosper on its native soil, you know that Colby can and will stay.”

Identifying Waterville as one of the College’s greatest potential assets, current President David A. Greene assembled and chaired—in consultation with the city politicians, as well as other civic and business leaders—a steering committee designed to better integrate Colby with the city and help revitalize Waterville. “Our successes have been dependent upon one another,” Greene said. “We want to make sure we’re carrying our part of the obligation.”

Greene believes that the College should return to its historic role, acting as a catalyst for stimulating economic growth in the local community. While the committee’s March 10 meeting was designed to initiate a planning phase, a number of college administrators and local leaders discussed eventual actionable items to bolster retail, enhance transportation between Waterville and Mayflower Hill, and even potentially purchase and develop residential real estate for students, faculty and staff along Main Street.

“We can bring strategic investments that could hopefully benefit Waterville in the long run,” Greene said. “When I look at historic images of the downtown area, I see a [place] that was much more dense in terms of population than it is right now, and you need some of that density to be able to support the type of retail and businesses we are talking about.”

Developer and Colby alumnus Paul Boghossian ’76, P’12 affirmed his faith in Greene’s vision. “This is not a fool’s errand,” Boghossian said. “Waterville is a city that just needs a little burnishing. With inspired and creative design, this could really be a hip place and a destination in Maine. There are some great bones here.”

Boghossian was brought into the conversation based on his development and ownership of the Hathaway Creative Center. Built out of the original Lockwood Mills building—which notably housed the Hathaway shirt company starting in the late fifties—Hathaway houses many residential, commercial and retail spaces near the foot of Main Street. The College loaned one million dollars at zero percent interest to help jump start development for the project, and many have lauded the effort because Hathaway hosts regular community events and serves as a renewed entry to the city’s downtown. “I was attracted to Waterville because of Colby,” Boghossian said. “There’s something really cool about giving back to your college town.”

Nearly all voices involved in this conversation have emphasized the necessity for increased Colby presence in downtown in driving this revitalization process. To help increase presence and build on Boghossian’s success at Hathaway, Greene has discussed the necessity for some form of residential presence: “the living piece is important for lots of reasons in terms of revitalizing the center of the city but also because it puts more people on the ground to support retail and other amenities and services.”

Boghossian and the committee plan to incorporate his expertise into the pursuit of any future downtown development. “Just like colleges compete for faculty and students in terms of academic ratings or how nice facilities are, they compete with how cool their towns are,” Boghossian explained. “Colby knows that Waterville isn’t their strongest selling point—yet. It could could be one of their very strongest selling points with some creative steps.”

Boghossian also emphasized another aspect of potential future residency. “One of the big issues here is the attractiveness of Waterville as a location where faculty could settle. It is easier for students to look past a dowdy, unhip downtown because they are here for only four years,” Boghossian said. “For faculty and staff, however, it can be a lifetime decision.”

In accordance with the committee’s goals, Boghossian, along with a number of other members, have discussed leveraging Maine’s Historic Preservation Tax Credit, an income tax incentive designed for the rehabilitation of historic structures. The Maine credit was capped at $100,000 until state legislature temporarily extended the cap to six million dollars specifically for the work at Hathaway. “The legislature viewed the Hathaway project as a test to see whether the targeted expenditure could result in economic revitalization,” Boghossian said.

Following the project’s success, the 2008 legislature officially raised the tax credit cap to five million dollars for certified historic projects anywhere in Maine. The state tax credit currently stands at 25 percent, so coupled with the 20 percent federal tax credit for historic projects, developers effectively spend just 55 cents on the dollar. According to Boghossian, the credits are “a huge engine to prosperity.”

Isgro confirmed this statement: “Paul’s vision with Hathaway and for the future of the city has been pretty amazing. He has had to deal with our modern needs, as well as deal with the historic aspects of the revitalization process.”

“Just how [construction] would be structured isn’t clear yet,” Greene said. “One way is it could be Colby-affiliated housing, so it’s owned and operated by an outside firm, but we have some oversight of it and make it one of our housing options.” Following a more traditional design, Greene said “another model might be where we would simply own it and operate it…[but] there are variations in between that could be done as well.”

“I have been trying to think of how you can create housing that can create a positive ethos,” Greene added, citing that Colby student initiatives such as CCAK and Hardy Girls Healthy Women demonstrate a student base already working to serve the greater community.

Identifying that students downtown would directly represent the College, Greene believes it is important to maintain a collectively responsible student culture that would respect the downtown community and become a fixture on Main Street. “I see the potential for actually creating something that has a real positive engagement with Waterville, forming a really reciprocal relationship centered around a civic engagement theme. It would be a privilege to live there…and would fit with the values and needs of Waterville.”

Former Mayor of Waterville, Partner at Tree Spirits of Maine and Colby alumna Karen Heck ’74 supports Greene’s plan: “I think that this would be good for a couple of reasons,” Heck said. “The first is that Colby and Waterville have a symbiotic relationship and what’s good for one is good for the other, so I’m delighted that President Greene is moving ahead on this initiative.”

“Secondly, I think having students engaged in the larger community will have a beneficial effect, not just on the vibrancy of downtown, but on the students as well,” Heck continued, speaking of attitudes that can emerge from a more isolated collegiate environment. “Students tend to have a distorted view of life in community….Sometimes I see a disconnect between them achieving outstanding academic or athletic success, and then their assumption that they have some right to inflict damage on the rest of the Colby community, rather than a responsibility to be accountable for their actions.”

“Having a privilege as well as a right is something that’s important for students to learn,” Heck said. “In turn, it’s a great starting point for people downtown. When they hear about Colby, they’re often reading about parties or transports. In order for that to change, we need people interacting in that shared environment and start really thinking about engagement and our place within a community—whether it’s downtown or somewhere else in the world.”

According to Greene and a number of civic leaders, this project would require a robust and constant transportation system, similar to the upcoming shuttle pilot program spearheaded by the Student Government Association. “An effective transit system would help make going to the town center a simple, regular activity.” Greene believes this system would promote the ongoing exchange between Colby and Waterville that Heck describes and “generally help draw all students—not just those who reside downtown—to easily enjoy the Main Street strip.”

Greater presence on the sidewalks of Main Street is a welcome idea from business owners like Charlie Giguere, a local entrepreneur, real estate developer, and owner and operator of Silver Street Tavern. “It’s all positive,” Giguere said, explaining that an increased number of people living closer to downtown and easy, regular, accessibility to Main Street would allow for a more “eclectic variety of restaurants and retail establishments….With more people, [businesses] will be able to provide more services, and students would gravitate towards small shops on Main street as opposed to the ubiquitous big-box stores.”

In addition, Giguere noted that bar nights often draw students to the downtown in droves, but a more consistent and casual presence could improve the mutualistic relationship in discussion. “[When] a Colby crowd takes over a restaurant, generally locals might choose to go somewhere else—there is no interaction [with students],” Giguere said. “But if students came down in smaller groups instead of being rushed here all at once, students would undoubtedly become part of the fabric of Waterville. [Downtown] housing would encourage smaller groups and transportation the more regular presence in town we’ve been talking about.”

Both Heck and Isgro identified this as an important period for collaboration between the city and the College. In the face of recent and potential future revenue sharing cuts, they stressed the necessity for a strong local economy and infrastructure. “Things are going to happen at a federal level and in Augusta,” Isgro said. “We need to fight for things we think are right, but we also need to create a sustainable model.”

“In the past, a lot of the talk has been about about trying to attract the next big company—which is something I fought against during my time in office,” Heck said. “If you do any kind of economic analysis, you’ll see that it’s all about supporting small business. I’m glad to hear that we’re not really looking at the next big thing, but rather, how we can support what we have and grow what we have.”

Looking to the Hathaway Creative Center as a model for Waterville’s future, Heck added, “People need to see that life goes on when a mill closes.”

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