Around the country, communities that once thrived through manufacturing have been facing decline. It’s a story we have been reminded of during the presidential election, but in reality, it was never far from our minds in Maine.
While Portland continues to see growth, other cities in our great state have been struggling to develop a new economy following the closing of the factories that once sustained them. At the same time, the rise of big box stores has pushed commerce out toward the highway and left downtowns with empty storefronts and limited pedestrian activity.
Waterville is one of those cities. Together, Colby College and the Harold Alfond Foundation, along with other generous partners, have established a model for revival. Last week, we announced a $20-million commitment—a $10 million gift from the foundation and a $10 million investment from the college—to create a downtown development fund in support of strategic investments to transform the downtown into a thriving city center.
Both commitments come from a place of deep and important history. The Harold Alfond Foundation furthers the philanthropic legacy of Harold Alfond, the founder of Dexter Shoe Co. and a longtime supporter of Maine communities in which he and his family worked and resided. Since 2009, the Alfond Foundation has supported Waterville arts and economic development with charitable grants to the Waterville Opera House, Maine Film Center, Waterville Public Library, Waterville Creates!, Colby College, Thomas College and the Waterville Development Corp.
For Colby, Waterville has been a partner since its founding in 1813. In the early 20th century, when Colby faced leaving Waterville after determining that it needed to move from its downtown campus, residents of the city raised $107,000 to purchase and donate to Colby the land on which it currently sits. Waterville was there for Colby when it faced challenges, and now Colby wants to return the favor.
But history is far from the only reason for this tremendous investment in Waterville. Perhaps more important are the existing assets that give it the potential to become the foremost destination of central Maine. The Colby College Museum of Art already draws 50,000 visitors a year from all over the country and beyond. The Maine Film Center and Railroad Square Cinema host the Maine International Film Festival each summer; the city’s historic opera house was recently renovated into a stunning venue for theater, dance and musical performances; and Waterville Creates! brings together arts organizations to make the city a hub of arts and culture. And Colby is in the planning phase of an arts building that will serve as a resource for the community.
Another building currently in planning at Colby—a athletics complex to replace the Alfond Athletic Center—will strengthen its ties to the community and create new ones. In 2020, Colby will be home to the only Olympic-size pool in Maine, a competition-size indoor track and other state-of-the-art facilities that will draw people from around the state and across New England. The Alfond Foundation’s commitment to making the Waterville area a destination for youth sporting events and tournaments is evidenced by recent grants to the Alfond Youth Center’s Purnell Wrigley Field project and a replica of Fenway Park at Camp Tracey. When Waterville becomes a destination for athletic competition, visitors will take advantage of other developments in Waterville.
Colby is currently planning to develop a 42-room boutique hotel on Main Street. New restaurants have opened and other known Maine brands have begun looking at downtown Waterville. They are drawn to the city by the promise of 200 students living on Main Street in an apartment complex that Colby plans to build. Across the street, a historic building is being renovated to house Collaborative Waterville—a satellite office of Massachusetts-based Collaborative Consulting, a software development company, that was attracted to Waterville because of the revitalization efforts. The company plans to hire 200 employees, and it is creating a training program with Waterville’s Thomas College, thanks to support from the Alfond Foundation. These jobs begin to replace the factory jobs that sustained the city decades ago.
It could be considered the perfect storm of development—partners from all sectors of the city coming together with passion, commitment and financial support to make catalytic investments and revitalize a beautiful, historic downtown. There are many other communities in this country that have a version of Waterville’s challenges. We hope they also can find their own version of a collaboration that will bring to their cities a renewed sense of possibility.
David Greene is president of Colby College and Greg Powell is board chairman of the Harold Alfond Foundation.