WATERVILLE — There are some ways development progress is easy to measure — for instance, a fully-occupied four-story, 22,000-square-foot building that had been mostly vacant for decades.
Other measures are less tangible.
As Colby College students started to work at night in the fourth floor of the former Hains building at 173 Main St., Paul Ureneck got phone calls.
“People saw lights [on in the building] and they’d never seen lights on before,” said Ureneck, director of commercial real estate for Elm City LLC, Colby's development arm. As he stood in the newly renovated building Monday, he added, “Sometimes something as small as that has a big impact, it’s a psychological step for the community.”
The lights are definitely on in the building at the downtown corner of Main and Appleton streets.
Colby College bought 173 Main St., as well as the building that once housed Levine’s department store, 9 Main St., at the other end of downtown, in 2015.
Since then, the college bought three more buildings and is also building the 100,000-square-foot, four-story Alfond Commons building across the street on 0.77 acres that was once part of a parking lot.
Last week Portland Pie Co. announced it was going into 3,500 square feet on the ground floor of 173 Main St. The franchise will be owned by Patrick Mulligan, part of the Portland-based chain. Mulligan has a 10-year lease and plans to employ 50.
The remaining ground floor space, about 2,500 square feet, has a potential tenant who is close to closing, said Ureneck.
CGI, formerly Collaborative Consulting, will move into the third floor in the coming weeks from its space in the Hathaway Creative Center. That company, which plans to employee 200 in the city in the next few years, will eventually take over most of the space on the three upper floors.
Until then, Colby staff work on the second floor, and on the fourth floor, Colby students burn the midnight oil as part of the school’s innovation incubator program.
Colby College and the 115-year-old building at 173 Main St. have a history that predates the downtown renaissance by a century.
It first opened in 1903 as Waterville Savings Bank. Colby’s president at the time, Arthur Roberts, a customer of the bank, took an interest in Lewis Levine, a teenager who sold newspapers out front. He told him that if he did well at Waterville High School, Roberts would make sure he could go to Colby, according to an article in Colby magazine.
Roberts kept his promise and Levine, class of 1916, bought the building in 1947, opening a law office on the third floor. The building was considered an important piece of downtown through much of the century. Levine sold the building to Robert Hains in 1986.
When Colby College bought it in 2015, its glory days were long past.
Windows on the upper floors had been broken, the interior exposed to rain and ice.
“It was a complete gut,” Ureneck said. It took 70 30-cubic-yard dumpsters to remove the debris.
But the bones of the building, the first in the city to use reinforced concrete floors, were great. Ureneck said there were no structural issues. And he found some surprises.
Under three layers of flooring in the north corner, where the bank had been, he found the original tile floors. The future tenant of the space will also keep the coffered ceilings and ornate bank vault.
Finishes on the building’s wooden central staircase have been brought back to life, and while a new addition on the back holds a new elevator, the old elevator shaft that snakes up through the staircase is now a light shaft with antique elevator touches.
Portland Pie Co. will use room behind the north corner retail as its kitchen.
The room still has the tile floor and fireplace from when it was the Waterville Savings Bank boardroom. It has a Colby connection, too.
It was in that room in April 1931, the decision was made to keep Colby College in Waterville — a decision that had rested on raising $100,000 to move the college to Mayflower Hill.
Finishing the 173 Main St. project is the first completed piece of Colby College’s ongoing downtown Waterville plan.
Four blocks away, at the south end of Main Street, the college has torn down the former Levine’s department store and is preparing to build a boutique hotel.
The block of four connected buildings across the street from that lot, which Colby bought at the same time, is structurally sound despite a fire several years ago and years of vacancy, and the school is considering how best to use the buildings. Colby's downtown revitalization plans also got a boost, in October 2016, with $10 million from the Harold Alfond Foundation.
The new Alfond Commons, across the street from 173 Main St., will house about 200 students in four- and six-bedroom apartments beginning in August. The 52 living units also include a two-bedroom apartment for faculty and a studio for staff on each floor and one classroom.
Inside, amid the construction bustle, the modern, bright building is taking shape.
Two stacked two-story, all-window social lounges on the Main-Temple corner of the building are intended to be a beacon, drawing people down an increasingly active Main Street, said Brian Clark, Colby vice president for planning.
Also taking shape in the building is the 3,800-square-foot Chace Community Forum, which faces Main Street on the ground floor. The school announced Feb. 13 that a $1 million grant from alumnus Malcolm Chase will support the space. The Waterville City Council, among other civic and business groups, will meet in the space.
The ground floor will also have a fitness center, and retail yet to be determined.
As with 173 Main St., the broker is CBRE | The Boulos Co. of Portland.
“The number one thing we’re interested in is quality,” Clark said. “We’re patient. We’re willing to wait for the right [tenant].”
Clark said Portland Pie is an example of the kind of tenant Colby is looking for — a family-friendly, Maine-owned business that will draw people from area towns, not just Colby students from across the street.
The city of 16,000, like many former New England mill towns, has struggled to make its downtown economically sustainable in recent decades.
When the college bought the first two downtown buildings in 2015, Colby President David Greene said that the hope was it would spur development downtown.
The plan has worked.
Ureneck and Clark use the word “catalyst” frequently as they show off the nearly completed 173 Main St. space and Alfond Commons.
The Main Street buildings stretching south from 173 show the effects — three more on the block are undergoing renovations, including 155-165 Main St., which was bought by a family group that includes Justin DePre, a Colby alumnus.
Clark points out the window of the fourth floor of the Alfond Commons, down Main Street to the bustle of construction by other developers.
He loves Waterville’s “funky cool” downtown architecture and is excited about the future.
“This is going to be a really vibrant Main Street,” he said.
Ureneck said it’s becoming obvious “people want to be here.”
“We’re seeing little glimpses of how these investments are working to catalyze [more development],” he said.
The 173 Main St. renovation cost $5.5 million, an investment that many wouldn’t have been willing to make, Ureneck said. “But it’s not just about dollars and cents.”