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As executive director of Waterville Main Street, Jennifer Olsen is the first one to acknowledge the city's challenges.
More than 1,000 professionals who work in Waterville live out of town and only half the city's residents own their homes. What's more, the town's infrastructure was designed for an era that has long gone by — when the mills were running, when the Kennebec River was used to transport goods and when the Colby College campus was downtown.
“We're living with that skeleton that does not make sense anymore,” said Olsen.
Luckily for Waterville, Olsen sees so much more.
Colby College recently purchased three key properties in the heart of downtown and helped commission a major traffic study to assess the impact of changes to state and federal roads. Developer Paul Boghossian, who in 2008 transformed the former Hathaway Shirt Factory into upscale apartments, retail and offices, is now developing Lockwood Mills, one of the state's largest remaining 19th century industrial sites. And some $23 million has been poured into six local institutions for major expansions and overhauls.
“There is a perfect storm going on right now,” said Olsen. “What's exciting is the will to be different.”
A native of Springfield, Mass., Olsen spent 10 years in North Yarmouth, before moving to Millinocket in 2003, when her husband was hired by Great Northern Paper. When the company filed for bankruptcy one year later, “it was a really enlightened moment about what happens to communities when there is a single economic driver and that driver goes away,” said Olsen, 50. “It was heartbreaking.”
She worked to be part of the economic revitalization. She and a partner opened a bookstore and coffee shop called Thirteen Moons, but closed it two years later. She worked for a local public health coalition, sold newspaper advertising and volunteered for the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce. In 2007, she was appointed business coordinator of the chamber.
In 2010, Olsen became executive director of Main Street Skowhegan, where she developed a strategic plan, led a community-wide branding initiative, and was instrumental in obtaining federal grants to make the town more pedestrian friendly. Her efforts yielded a new a marketing campaign that celebrated the town's rich heritage of farming, art, mills and shoemaking, and the slogan “Skowhegan, a Place to Watch,” a nod to one interpretation of the Abenaki word “Skowhegan.”
In 2012 Olsen took the helm at Waterville Main Street, which is overseen by a 16-person board, and funded by private donations and revenues generated by the downtown Tax Improvement Funding district. Olsen steers the group with the help of a part-time office manager and a legion of 100 volunteers.
“I was really thrilled when they hired Jen,” said Shannon Haines, Olsen's predecessor at Waterville Main Street, who is now executive director of the Maine Film Center. “She is passionate about downtown. She is knowledgeable and collaborative. Any community organization or successful non-profit requires that.”
Collaboration is very much at the core of Olsen's daily duties.
Through United Way of Mid-Maine, she recently became certified in Service Enterprise Training, a nationally-recognized practice that will allow her to train area non-profit groups to more effectively leverage volunteers.
Recently, with the help of 100 Colby student volunteers, Olsen led a tactical urbanism exercise to explore what would happen if the lanes of a major intersection, Main and Temple streets, were narrowed for pedestrian activities. They assessed the impact on traffic and emergency vehicle access.
She is also on the steering committee, guiding Waterville's participation in the 100 Million Healthier Lives Project, a program funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, to develop strategies to improve community health, like improving walkability, social connectivity, and access to healthy food.
Olsen is leading Main Street at a time when many of the city's major institutions have made major investments of their own.
“I'm excited to see what happens,” Olsen said. “We have to believe that change is possible and that we can be different. But it's a process, it's not an event.”