Town-Gown Reboot

Photograph by Roman Boed/Flickr

A century ago, Waterville helped bail out a struggling Colby College. Can Colby return the favor?

By Jesse Ellison
Earlier this year, city officials and Colby College representatives gathered to break ground on a new dormitory in downtown Waterville. Construction workers in hard hats peered out from the upper floors of a building across the street, and curious passersby stopped and stared. It was the first sunny day in a string of rainy ones, and bulldozers and backhoes dotted the construction site, formerly a parking lot. The weather wasn’t the only reason city and school bigwigs were feeling relieved — the night before, the city council had officially resolved an issue that threatened to torpedo not just the dorm but an entire $45 million project to reinvent Waterville.

Mayor Nick Isgro beamed down at the crowd from a podium. “This is an incredible milestone and a symbol of the century-old symbiotic relationship between the city of Waterville and Colby College,” he said. “For the last 20 years, this city has really sought to resurrect itself and create a new identity for itself. Today, we have a new future beyond anything we could have imagined.”

There’s always been a sense of this huge separation between the local community and the college. They were kind of the folks on the hill.

— Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro

The complicated relationship between Waterville and Colby dates to 1813, when the college (then called the Maine Literary and Theological Institution) was founded. Initially, the school based itself right in the middle of the small-but-burgeoning mill town, at the center of civic life. A century later, squeezed by population growth, its buildings aged and worn, college administrators considered relocating the school to Augusta. But in 1929 — during the early days of the Great Depression — Waterville residents managed to raise $100,000 so the college could buy its current campus on Mayflower Hill, 2 miles from downtown.

That was a long time ago, though, and since then, the school and city have moved in seemingly opposite directions. In Isgro’s lifetime, he says, “There’s always been a sense of this huge separation between the local community and the college. They were kind of the folks on the hill.”

On campus, the grass literally looks a little greener than in town. The main quad is meticulously landscaped, and the art museum boasts a strikingly modern glass facade and a collection of American art valued at a minimum of $100 million. On the day I visited, the college had brought in baby bunnies and goats for students to play with, to relieve late-semester stress. Later that week, a massage therapist came to give free massages.

Downtown Waterville, on the other hand, has seen better days. In the 1960s, it had a bustling industrial economy, with mills along the Kennebec churning out textiles and paper. But as played out across Maine, manufacturing declined, the population dropped, storefronts were boarded up, homes neglected. Until recently, all that was in the windows of the grand old Hains building was a row of dusty, timeworn wigs, remnants of a long-gone shop called Judy’s Hairstyling.

The dormitory groundbreaking was, planners hope, a sign of what’s to come as Colby, together with the Harold Alfond Foundation, kicks off a massive project to reinvigorate Waterville’s downtown. The $25 million dorm will open next fall and house 200 students. At the other end of the street, on a sloping triangular lot, Colby has demolished the former Levine’s department store to make way for a 42-room boutique hotel with an on-site restaurant. And at the historic Hains building, the wigs are gone, and the college has begun a $4.5 million restoration to turn the upper floors into updated offices and the ground level into retail space. The overall goal is to draw more people — students, office workers, visitors — into town on a regular basis.

The grand design traces back to one man, Colby College president David Greene, who arrived three years ago from the University of Chicago, where he was an executive vice president in charge of real-estate and campus development. There, he led a similar university-driven revitalization of Hyde Park, the city neighborhood around campus, building an office tower, hotel, and retail space, and starting a business incubator.

Once the university started investing, Greene says, other businesses quickly followed suit. All it took was that entrepreneurial jump-start in the struggling area. The experience in Chicago, along with the year full of meetings with local business owners and community leaders in Waterville, convinced Greene that the best approach for Colby would be to “not dip a toe in the water, but to jump in with both feet, and to make very significant investments up front and to signal to the market that Waterville is a place that is fully open for business, that is ready to change.”

One of his earliest acts as president was to convince a Massachusetts-based IT company, Collaborative Consulting, to open a new office in Waterville. The company, which offers information-management assistance to businesses, was already looking to open a location in Maine but had all but decided on Bangor. Governor Paul LePage, Greene says, tipped him off to their interest, so he scheduled a meeting.

“I think they had no idea what to make of me,” he laughs, remembering their confusion as to why a college president was sitting in their office. “It was definitely a courtesy, like, ‘Okay, we’ll take the meeting.’ And then I was just persistent. When they first walked Main Street, I think they said, ‘I can’t see it.’ I said, ‘You just have to imagine. Close your eyes.’ ”

In early 2016, when Collaborative Consulting announced its move to Waterville, it pledged to create 200 jobs within four years. This summer, once renovations are complete, the company (since acquired by Montreal-based CGI) will become the anchor tenant on the upper floors of the Hains building.

“Success downtown is about having a vibrant core,” Greene says, “but that in itself isn’t enough. It’s really about economic development and job opportunities — how to make this city a place people want to live, work, and visit, so that there’s a sustainable way forward for Waterville, a new economy that takes over for the mill economy.”

“It’s a great thing for Waterville,” said Senator Angus King, who recently toured the downtown ahead of construction. “I have a special feeling about this because I lived in Skowhegan in the late ’60s, and Waterville was the bustling center of the region. In some ways, it was disproportionately hit by the loss of manufacturing . . . so it’s great to see Waterville on the upswing.”

Of course, a Waterville on the upswing would be good for Colby too. Application numbers have already gone up since the plans were announced. Greene hopes that as Waterville improves, the school will become more desirable not just to students, but to potential hires as well. He thinks faculty will be more inclined to live in town and alumni more likely to stick around. “Our model is really built on the residential nature of this academic community,” he says. “If we lose that, it threatens Colby. . . . We need to be running as fast as we can to make improvements.”

And if the plan doesn’t work? He laughs. “Failure is not an option on this one. We have to succeed. It has to work not just for Colby, but for Waterville.”

The early signs, Greene says, are good. As Colby started buying up downtown space, a handful of other businesses jumped on the bandwagon. A trendy gastropub called the Proper Pig opened last year and within six months had expanded into an adjacent space, a Boston-area businessman announced plans for a microbrewery-meets-nightclub, and a number of other historic properties in town have sold and are being renovated into office, retail, and restaurant spaces.

It’s helped that Greene found a friend and ally in Nick Isgro. The 36-year-old mayor, a controller at Skowhegan Savings Bank, told me he ran for office specifically to help facilitate the Colby project. “It was never a life goal of mine to be mayor of Waterville,” he says. “But word was out that things were going to be happening and there were going to be some opportunities for the city. At the time, I just didn’t see a lot of people who really wanted to take the bull by the horns. My wife thought I was crazy.”

Greene appreciates Isgro’s enthusiasm for the project. “The relationship between a college and a city can be fraught with all kinds of ill will,” he says. “It was much more difficult in Chicago. Every move was an all-out battle to get anything done. There was always something, a major obstacle. Here, people are clearing the obstacles instead of getting in the way.”

For the most part, at least. The combination of the grand scale of the project and the fact that it comes out of Colby has prompted pushback from a small but vocal group of locals. Some don’t like the perception that the college is taking over the town, while others worry about rising property values (and therefore tax bills).

“There are a lot of people in different areas of the city who are used to things not working out,” Isgro says — and right before the dorm groundbreaking, that mistrust came to a head over one of the project’s seemingly more mundane aspects: “There’s a fascination with parking in Maine,” Greene notes, still unable to conceal his surprise. “That’s the piece I hadn’t fully appreciated: how sacrosanct the parking in front of a store is here.”

Existing business owners and customers grumbled over the fact that the new dorm replaces 90 of 600 spaces in a parking lot between Main Street and a parallel side street with a string of discount stores. But the bigger uproar started with a proposal to lease 42 spots in a public lot to Colby for hotel guests. Initially, the deal was that Colby would pay $1 per space per year for 99 years. Amid vocal opposition from residents, the city council balked at the terms, and for a tense moment, it looked as if the issue might derail the whole effort. Greene and Isgro gave a joint interview with a local paper, saying that without the parking spaces, the entire project would become untenable.

“All these projects are part of an integrated whole,” Greene says. The dorm alone, he contends, wouldn’t do enough to pull Main Street out of its economic slump. “It’s like Jenga — you pull pieces out and the foundation would be weaker. If we couldn’t put a hotel here, I wouldn’t put 200 students there. I couldn’t make that kind of investment on behalf of Colby if I thought the rest of the pieces weren’t coming.”

Sydney Mayhew, a city council member who served on a special parking committee formed to settle the dispute, says a significant part of the opposition also came from the handicapped and elderly, who have legitimate concerns about close access. “That’s an issue we’re looking at with a great deal of diligence,” he says. “Then, there’s the minority of people who think that Colby is slowly taking over the downtown in a broad context. But that’s a minority. . . . The majority is very excited.”

The parking committee came up with a new plan that has Colby leasing 30 spaces at $28 per space per month for 40 years. The city council approved the lease in April, but the dust-up over a few dozen parking spots and a relatively paltry sum of money raised concerns about the tenuousness of community support for the project.

“Look, it’s difficult, and some of that is the city’s fault,” Isgro told me. “We’re not as good at getting out in front of a message as we should have or could have been. The reality is this is a one-time opportunity. . . . I don’t take it lightly when someone steps forward and says, ‘I want to invest $50 million.’ At the end of the day, we need to get this done.”

Colby is sensitive to its perception among residents, especially now that it’s carving out a new presence in town. Shortly after resolving the parking issue, the college announced that all profits from the hotel would go directly to scholarships for its students from Maine. And Greene likes to emphasize that the dorm will be part of a civic engagement push, with space set aside for community meetings or use by local nonprofits.

Colby senior Matt Hawkins attended the groundbreaking ceremony with friends, all of whom lamented graduating before the new dorm would be ready (in part because all the rooms will have full-size beds). Hawkins said he hoped the dorm would help bridge the divide between town and gown, because during his tenure, his peers’ excursions into downtown Waterville were mostly occasioned by Thursday “bar nights,” when local watering holes entice students with karaoke, dancing, and drink specials. “Unfortunately,” he noted, “that’s a social setting that’s not actually conducive to community building.”

From the podium, though, Greene played up the longer historical relationship between Colby and Waterville. “This is payback for all the times when Waterville stood tall for Colby,” he said. “It’s time for Colby to do the same for this great city.”