Good Neighbors?

Good Neighbors?

Relationship between Colby and the community marked by tensions, community service, mutual economic interests

By David McKay Wilson '76

Photo by Fred Field
"Things can be tense between Colby and Waterville, and the negative feelings can sometimes override the positive feelings,— said Senior Class Representative Annie Mears '07, who headed the daffodil project. "It's nice to get the positive energy to the surface.—

The strains between Colby students and the local police are just one element of the complex relationship between the College and its community that has evolved since Colby moved its campus to Mayflower Hill in the 1940s and '50s. By leaving downtown, Colby set the stage for its remarkable expansion across 700 acres of pastures and woodlands. It did so without the nasty fights over land use that typify town-gown clashes at city campuses across the country.

While the move gave Colby room to grow, it created a geographical distance from Waterville that became psychological as well. The spires that rose over Lorimer Chapel and Miller Library were indeed ivory-colored towers, which could be seen looming above the working-class community by the Kennebec. The decline of the region's industrial sector in the late 20th century further highlighted the divide. As Colby and its predominantly upper-middle class student body prospered up the hill, Waterville's industrial base crumbled in the valley. The city's homeowners, meanwhile, were burdened with property taxes that are among the nation's highest, in a regional hub where 28 percent of its property is owned by tax-exempt institutions.

Colby has long worked to bridge that divide. That effort in recent years has included programs that bring residents up to campus and send Colby students, faculty, and administrators down from Mayflower Hill. Waterville children visit on Halloween for a daylong Haunted House at a Colby dorm, and qualified Waterville High seniors take classes at the College. Colby's Goldfarb Center holds statewide candidate debates, civic engagement courses use the community as their classroom, and the Colby Cares About Kids mentoring program brings hundreds of undergraduates into local schools.

Colby has also helped revive Waterville's struggling economy, working with local leaders and investing endowment funds to jump-start the city's transformation to its postindustrial future.

Former Dean of the College Earl Smith, whose 2006 history of the College, Mayflower Hill, chronicles Colby's development since its founding in 1813, says the town-gown relationship has improved. "Leaving aside the issue of the kids and the cops, the relationship is a lot warmer because of Colby's involvement,— said Smith, who grew up in Waterville and spent 40 years working at Colby. "The locals have to come to realize—if it weren't for Colby, where would we be?—

At Waterville City Hall, City Manager Mike Roy '74, who grew up in Waterville and made his name playing hockey at Colby's Alfond Arena in high school and in college, pulls out a report with the startling statistics that show Waterville's decline over his lifetime. The population hovered around 18,000 in the early 1950s. By 1970, when Roy was a Colby freshman, it had risen to 19,000. The Scott Paper Co. mill, across the Kennebec in Winslow, ran three shifts, and the Hathaway Shirt Co. factory cranked out button-down Oxfords by the thousands. Today, both plants are shut down and the population has shrunk to 15,600. Sixty percent of the city's elementary school children now come from low-income families.

Over those years, Waterville's downtown has mirrored the population decline, with landmark department stores like Sterns and Levine's shuttered and retail shoppers fleeing to big box stores by I-95. Downtown, meanwhile, restaurants, bars, and the city's cultural institutions have survived, buoyed in part by Colby students, visitors, and the College's leadership under President William "Bro— Adams. He chairs the board of the Waterville Regional Arts and Community Center, located in the old Sterns Department Store, and has become a force in the economic development community.
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  • On March 7, 2009, Rich Garrett wrote:
    My mother lived in Waterville from 1923-1944. She graduated from Colby. Her Father worked at he LockWood Mill. My Aunt worked at the Hathaway Shirt factory for years,. The history was interesting and well written. I have a picture of the1940 Freshman Colby College Orientation Class if the author or anyoneelse would like a copy.