WATERVILLE, Maine — The energy, excitement, and street buzz in Waterville is palpable. This former mill town set on the Kennebec River, and home to Colby College, is getting a massive makeover, re-inventing itself as the artsy hotspot of northern New England. The renaissance is the result of a unique collaboration between community, philanthropists, and businesses, spearheaded by Colby College, and driven by a passion for the arts.
During the past 10 years, more than $400 million has been pumped into the city’s art programs. Three major art centers have opened in the past three years alone, including the $18 million Paul J. Schupf Art Center and the $100 million Colby College Gordon Arts Center, opening this fall. New shops and restaurants are cropping up, former mill buildings are being redeveloped, and the recently opened Lockwood Hotel is the first new hotel on Main Street in more than 100 years.
We visited this often-overlooked city and were pleasantly surprised. There’s a lot happening here.
We started with a tour of the spanking new, gleaming Paul J. Schupf Art Center, which opened to the public in December 2022. Designed to be a hub for the arts and community, the modern concrete and glass building features large street-facing windows, an atrium overlooking the city green, and a brightly lit, outdoor sign that changes colors. “This building has really transformed the downtown landscape, especially at night when the lights are on,” says Shannon Haines, CEO of Waterville Creates, a nonprofit supporting and promoting the arts in Waterville. “It’s brought a lot more people into downtown.”
The first floor of the center includes the lobby area, the Bixby Chocolate Café, and the Ticonic Gallery, with a clay studio, classrooms, and a public gallery hosting six to eight exhibitions a year.
Across the glass atrium is the new Joan Dignam Schmaltz Gallery of the Colby College Museum of Art, presenting year-round rotating exhibitions that are free to the public. “We wanted to build a stronger connection with the community, and to bring the arts front and center,” says Beth Finch, Chief Curator, Colby College Museum of Art of the new downtown exhibition space. A new glass sky bridge links the historic 1902 Waterville Opera House, a gorgeous 800-seat theater, with a year-round roster of community theater productions, concerts, and comedy shows.
Upstairs is the new home of the Maine Film Center, with three state-of-the-art theaters, presenting contemporary, independent, and classic films, along with first-run screenings. In its new downtown location, attendance has already skyrocketed. “We’ve seen a dramatic increase,” says Mike Perreault, executive director of the Maine Film Center. “People are really excited to watch films in this new space.”
Outside the theaters is a concession stand (with popcorn!) and cozy seating with walls of glass overlooking the streetscape. It’s a nice place to gather before and after shows.
Across the street, the former hardware store building sat empty for years. It’s been completely renovated and is now home to Green Block + Studios, hosting a variety of music, dance, and visual art programs, all open to the public and free. Upstairs are artist studios and research spaces.
“Main Street used to be one way leading right out of the city. That was giving the wrong signal,” says Jordan Rowan, general manager of the Lockwood Hotel. We were having lunch at Front & Main, a new restaurant located off the lobby of the Lockwood Hotel. In late 2022, Main and Front streets, after years of being one-way, reverted to two-way traffic as part of a $11.2 million downtown revitalization project. “It’s definitely made street life livelier,” says Rowan.
There are a variety of downtown restaurants and shops, including the subterranean 18 Below Raw Bar known for its fresh seafood, Grand Central Station for wood-fired pizza, and Opa for traditional Greek dishes. You’ll find a good burger at the Silver Street Tavern, and decent pub grub and BBQ at the Proper Pig. But the arrival of Front & Main was a welcome addition to the downtown culinary scene, offering a bit more upscale fare in a contemporary, lively setting. Lettuce wraps, noodle bowls and sandwiches like crispy pork belly with candied bacon, and Korean chicken with kimchi slaw are popular lunch dishes. For dinner, start with appetizers like shrimp aguachile or green chile and coconut soup, followed by entrees like shrimp bucatini, mushroom risotto, and Tandoori-style roasted cod.
For the showstopper of Waterville’s art-infused renaissance, you’ll need to head to the Colby College campus. We took a hard-hat tour of the soon-to-open Gordon Center for Creative and Performing Arts, a stunning glass and wood structure, filled with windows and light. The center, which will open this fall, was designed by William Rawn and Associates. Rawn has designed the Seiji Ozawa Hall, Linde Center for Music and Learning at Tanglewood, and the Rubenstein Arts Center at Duke University. The building features walls of glass, designed to draw people in. “Most art centers are closed off from the outside,” says David Greene, president of Colby College. “This was designed for maximum transparency. Come in; this is for you.”
It’s filled with state-of-the-art studios, rehearsal spaces, music practice rooms, a film screening room, art labs, and a 325-seat performance hall for live shows. “The whole idea is that this place is buzzing with activity. There’s art and music everywhere. And the public is welcome,” says Greene.
It was buzzing — with construction activity, but we’ll return. Next visit, we’ll book a room at the Lockwood Hotel, and maybe kayak the Kennebec River or hike the Quarry Road Trails. And spend plenty of time enjoying Waterville’s fast-emerging arts scene.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at email@example.com