Please do not leave this page until complete. This can take a few moments.
Water. Not just drips from snowmelt on the unseasonal 52-degree mid-January day, but ankle-deep puddles inside 173 Main St., the former home of Waterville Savings Bank and Judy's Wig Salon that Colby College will turn into ground-floor retail and upper-level office space this summer.
It will be the first completed piece of the college's elaborate plan, in collaboration with the city and other parties, to rejuvenate the city. News traveled fast from the wet building to the architects, college and other planners meeting for the first time to talk details of the building on Jan. 11. About $5 million will be invested into the building, which has 21,000 square feet of leasable space.
Paul Ureneck, director of commercial real estate at Colby and former senior vice president for project management at CBRE | The Boulos Co. in Portland, frowned when he heard the news, but admitted such surprises are all part of rehabbing old buildings. Most of the properties Colby bought, like the former Levine's clothing store at 9 Main St., were beyond repair.
That building was demolished to make room for a 42-room boutique hotel and restaurant that Elm City LLC, Colby's development arm, will own. Portland-based Olympia Cos. will develop and manage the property. Olympia and the college were close to signing a contract as this issue went to press. Olympia also worked on the Hilton Garden Inn in Portland and The Brunswick Hotel & Tavern. The Waterville hotel will have a restaurant that seats about 45 people and a bar that can seat 15.
Ureneck talks energetically about the beautiful ceramic floor and giant bank vault on 173's first floor that he'd like to restore, and about the arched windows revealed on the top floor after three levels of ceilings were gutted. Collaborative Consulting, a Massachusetts IT company now owned by CGI, will occupy the upper floors and has promised to bring 200 or more highly skilled jobs to the city.
“We have 16 feet of clearance on the top floor,” says Ureneck. “There's also an existing elevator, one of the oldest in the state, that is three-feet square. We're still toying with what to do with that space, because we can't use it as an elevator. We might use it as a light shaft.”
PC Construction and CWS Architects, both from the Portland area, will handle the rehab of 173 Main.
But his vision must extend beyond one building, throughout a four-block stretch of town in which he doesn't want to create cookie-cutter buildings. Each building should be unique, he says, to reflect partnerships with the city and others. “There's no general theme,” he says.
“It's been a tremendous help to us to have a defined downtown area,” Ureneck says, adding that he and other planners have to figure out “how you anchor bookends of a town.” The former Levine's and Waterville Savings buildings are on opposite ends of Main Street's core.
There are no immediate plans for buildings Colby owns from 14-20 Main St., but Elm City plans to put out a request for proposals to cull ideas from developers, Ureneck says.
The downtown project is being funded in large part by a $10 million Alfond Foundation grant along with an equal match from Colby.
Meantime, people like Bill Mitchell, owner of GHM Insurance Agency and nephew of U.S. Sen. George Mitchell (whose father worked as a janitor at Colby), have been buying up property around town. There was a history of development in his family, as his father, Paul, had headed the Waterville Urban Renewal Authority in the mid 1960s and 1970s.
“When Colby's involvement began to develop, it became clear to me there was a real opportunity to get involved. I've bought 10 different properties with a total of 85,000 square feet of commercial space. About half of that is downtown,” Mitchell says, adding that he was buying buildings even before Colby began its expansion downtown.
One property is the former Masonic Building at 14 Common St. in the heart of downtown, just off of Main Street. There, he and business partner Fred Ouellette opened The Proper Pig, which he describes as an upscale pub-style restaurant and bar. It opened in June 2016, and the original 1,500 square feet inside already is being expanded because the outdoor patio that seats 40 can't be used in the winter. Burgers are priced around $10.
“The real impact of the development with Colby is about two years out,” Mitchell says. “When CGI moves into 173 Main and continues to build an employment base, that will be the beginning of the flow of people into downtown, followed by the hotel, the buildings across from it and the dormitory.” The 200-student apartment complex and hotel are due for completion in 2018.
Colby alumni also are stepping up, with four of them spurring interest by other alumni, according to Ureneck and others at Colby. Alum Justin DePre and his brother Tom, both local realtors, bought 155 and 156 Main St., across from the planned dorms. The two buildings housed the former Atkins Printing. The DePre family plans to use the space for retail and offices, according to The Colby Echo student newspaper.
Other alumni redeveloping downtown buildings include Paul Boghossian, who restored the historic Hathaway Mill in Waterville five years ago plus two other buildings in what is known as the Hathaway Creative Center complex off the north side of Water Street. It has office and retail space and 67 high-end apartments. Part of it is currently for sale for Boghossian to raise capital for other projects. And alum Matthew Hancock bought the Let's Talk Learning School space on Temple Street, which he reportedly plans to lease.
It's not just the buildings getting makeovers. The city and state Department of Transportation funded a study on the impact of the planned changes on parking and traffic. Civil engineering company Gorrill Palmer recommended changing the direction of traffic, as the downtown currently has two one-way streets that make traversing the town difficult. The recommendation is to make traffic two ways on those streets, Front and Main, and to create more parallel parking rather than perpendicular angle parking.
Colby also bought an area for parking to offset the 90 spaces that will be taken by the new student apartments, which are located on a large parking concourse with 600 parking spots in the center of town. It also assured there is space for the displaced farmers market, says Colby Vice President of Planning Brian Clark.
He came to Colby with President David Greene from the University of Chicago, where they worked on a similar project. “What's unique here is the partnerships, including with the Alfond Foundation and the city,” he says.
Clark adds that the student apartments located downtown encourage engagement with the community. “That matters a lot,” he says.
The 20,000-square-foot apartment building will have retail on the ground floor and four floors of student apartments with their own kitchens. Students in the complex will focus on civil engagement work at the local jail, soup kitchen or homeless shelter.
Like many an academic, Colby President Greene looks to history to explain the impetus for the current redevelopment of Waterville. The college struggled during the 1800s, and Gardiner Colby, whose company made uniforms for the Union Army, raised enough money to keep his namesake college afloat.
As the college faltered again during the Depression, Waterville's townspeople came together to raise $107,000 to assure Colby stayed in the town by buying the land on which the college currently sits. On a barren hill, the townspeople bought bricks as they could afford them and the buildings were erected one-by-one, Greene says.
Greene is no stranger to the new realities of colleges connecting more strongly with their communities so both survive. He came to Colby in 2014 from the University of Chicago, where he helped transform a food and cultural desert on nearby 53rd Street into a more vibrant local community with a Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, hotels and boutiques.
“On my first visit to Waterville in July 2014, I saw a beautiful campus, then drove downtown and stayed at a local hotel,” Greene says. “It was a Main Street I recognized right away: Victorian-era buildings, empty stores, buildings not taken care of for decades, second and third floors of buildings that looked vacant. I did not see people but I did see elements of urban decay that could have long-term deleterious effects.”
Helping draw interest to downtown Waterville are nearby institutions Thomas College and Kennebec Valley Community College, as well as the local arts scene. Greene says Colby's art museum itself draws 50,000 visitors a year.
“We have real assets and coordinated leadership,” he says. “There's no way we can do this work without tensions around the development and how it changes the lives of people. This is earnest collaboration.”
He also talks about job creation, including 100 jobs at Colby the last few years as it grows with $65,000 as the average salary, and the downtown development that is expected to bring hundreds of jobs, including the 200-plus promised by Collaborative Consulting and its new owner CGI. There also will be hundreds of construction jobs along with jobs at the new hotels and retail stores.
“These jobs are starting to replace mill jobs with 21st century ones. We need the next iteration of this economy to evolve,” Greene says. He expects that activity to draw more high tech and other companies.
Greene figures that when all is said and done, Colby will spend more than its own $10 million and dip into the general capital fund of the university. He estimates some $65 million in investment from all sources, including private developers, will go into Main Street in Waterville over the next five years.
“I hope within five years we'd be in a place where we have a vibrant Main Street that's becoming a destination,” he says, “and in 10 years have a sustainable business model…where the market takes over.”