WATERVILLE, Maine — Colby College president David Greene stood on a dusty street corner in this central Maine city, looking at the buckled downtown sidewalk and a weed-speckled hole in the cracked concrete.
“There once was a tree there,” said Greene, who would like to see another fill the space.
Bringing trees back to Main Street is not a novel idea, but the ongoing revitalization of this former mill city goes far beyond plantings and sidewalk beautification. It’s one small, aesthetic piece of a broad and ambitious plan, driven largely by Colby, to restore vitality and good jobs to a small city that had lost much of both over the decades.
And for the private college, which often seemed further removed than the two miles to downtown, it’s a chance to give back to the city for the benefit of both, Greene said.
“We owe it to our history and our relationship to Waterville to do something,” Greene said of the liberal arts college, founded in 1813.
At one end of downtown, a residence hall for 200 students who agree to do community service stands on a former parking lot. Nearby is the century-old facade of a long-vacant bank, which Colby bought in 2015 and renovated with the goal of attracting tech and retail businesses. Farther down Main Street, steel beams have been raised for an $18 million arts center in which Colby has partnered with Waterville Creates, an umbrella arts organization.
“It’ll be a living room of the city,” Greene said of the Paul J. Schupf Art Center, which is scheduled to be completed by the beginning of 2023.
Walk yet another block, and there’s a new hotel built by Colby that includes the city’s first upscale restaurant to open in decades.
For Waterville, a city on the Kennebec River about 20 miles north of Augusta, the changes promise to be transformative, said Garvan Donegan, director of planning, innovation, and economic development for the nonprofit Central Maine Growth Council.
“What you see is a transitioning and a reimagining of Waterville from a mill and manufacturing milieu to very much a knowledge-based economy,” Donegan said. “Colby has been extraordinarily important and is arguably the driving force behind so much of the good work that’s occurring.”
Population is rising again after declining for decades, increasing to an estimated 16,558 in 2019 from 15,719 in 2010, according to the US Census Bureau. The demographics in Waterville also are trending younger, Donegan said, despite the state having the oldest median age in the nation.
Free Wi-Fi now is available downtown through a series of hot spots. An incentive program to improve business fronts and other beautification measures, funded and managed by Colby and the Growth Council, has doled out $175,000 in grants and led to more than $2 million in direct investments, Donegan said.
Even downtown traffic is getting a do-over, with one-way Main Street being restored to its former two-way flow.
“This is about making the community more visibly and physically attractive, more welcoming, and easier to shop,” Donegan said.
Governor Janet Mills said Colby and its partners are reopening doors to long-shuttered spaces and building on that potential.
“Colby’s investment in our shared community reflects its commitment to its students and our state and is a great example of how we can revitalize our communities, strengthen local talent, expand our workforce, and strengthen our economy,” Mills said.
For a city that long depended on riverside mills for its economic sustenance, the arts have become a fulcrum for the future.
In addition to the Schupf center, Colby recently opened a downtown arts collaborative in a formerly abandoned hardware store. The $6.5 million project is designed to include a robust mix of arts programming, artist residencies, and wide community outreach.
Using the arts as a centerpiece, Greene said, is one way for Waterville to attract new residents with a creative bent and also encourage faculty to settle here instead of commuting from Portland and the coast, as some do.
The arts collaborative and Schupf center are examples of “massive changes underway in Waterville, the likes of which we haven’t seen in my lifetime,” said Shannon Haines, president of Waterville Creates.
Haines has been pushing for the city’s revitalization for many years, including a previous, decade-long stint as executive director of Waterville Main Street, a nonprofit organization.
“More than 50 percent of the storefronts were empty, and there was a cycle of disinvestment in the downtown,” said Haines, who left the Waterville Main Street position in 2012. “There were a lot of ideas at the time about redeveloping buildings, but there was nobody making the significant investment that was required.
“When Colby started making those investments,” she said, “other public and private investment followed.”
Now, more than 90 percent of first-floor space on Main Street is occupied, Donegan said.
Since Greene became Colby’s president in 2014, the college has invested $85 million in downtown projects, part of an estimated $200 million in direct investment there from public and private sources.
“Our futures are tied together. We’re in the talent-recruiting business, and we want to be in a place where the most talented people want to be,” Greene said. “You really need to have a vibrant city. It’s finally on the rebound.”
Getting buy-in from the city’s stakeholders, many of whom had been skeptical that the college would follow through, wasn’t easy at the beginning, Greene recalled.
Waterville residents helped rescue Colby during the Great Depression when the college, located downtown for more than a century, was struggling on its cramped riverside campus. The city and the college partnered to raise money to buy 600 acres for a new campus on the outskirts of Waterville.
As the college grew and flourished over the ensuing decades, downtown Waterville began to stagnate and decline, similar to the experience of many manufacturing cities in New England.
“Now it was payback time,” Greene said of the college’s outreach. “We’re here for the long haul. Waterville’s here for the long haul. We need to support the city.”
Lutie Brown, a Colby senior, lives in the downtown residence building, which also houses the college’s Office of Civic Engagement. Brown, who came to Colby from New York City, said the experience has had a profound impact on her.
She has participated in the Best Buddies program, which connects volunteers to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Brown also became involved in city politics. And she works on veterans services at the local office of US Representative Chellie Pingree, a Democrat.
Students help at the public library, others in arts programs with children, and even some in the city’s Fire Department. One recent graduate, she said, liked that work so much he became a Waterville firefighter.
For her part, Brown said, the civic involvement “has helped me find community here on campus and in Waterville. It’s made Waterville a home for me, and it’s illuminated my entire path after Colby.”
Greene insisted that Colby won’t retreat from its commitment to Waterville, and that the perceptions between town and gown have changed along the way.
“I didn’t feel hope and possibility in the community when I came here, but now I feel a sense that we can do this,” Greene said.
“The downtown is a start, but our efforts have to be broader to help the community build and thrive over time,” he said. “It comes from a sense of obligation.”
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.