I’ve seen a thriving downtown Waterville, and I don’t mean only when I drove through on the way to Mayflower Hill this morning.
Today’s drive-through passed the framework of the Lockwood Hotel, rising at the head of Main Street; people headed for their offices at Colby-owned 173 Main St.; lights on in Bill & Joan Alfond Main Street Commons; students clambering about the Colby Shuttle bound for morning classes. It brought to mind another version of a thriving downtown, the one I came to know when I arrived in Waterville in 1974.
Not to bore you with a history lesson, but more and more alumni came to the city after its heyday. Those who have known Waterville only in its economic malaise may be interested to know where it has been—and where it’s headed again.
In the 1970s Main Street was lined with stores and restaurants, and the sidewalks were filled with shoppers. Levine’s, Dunhams of Maine, Peter Webber Sports, Stern’s Department Store, Alvina & Delia, Waterville Hardware. Barber shops, shoe stores, jewelers. The mills were humming, jobs were plentiful, and paychecks were fat. But one day in 1997, steam abruptly stopped spewing from the stack at Kimberly-Clark, across the river. The paper mill was closed, never to reopen. The bottom had dropped out.
What followed was a steady decline as jobs disappeared and workers left. The result was the downtown that we came to know in recent years: empty storefronts, a 5 p.m. exodus, local leaders—including those from Colby—working hard to hold up the economy and people’s spirits. And then, in 2014, Colby and the Waterville community stepped up in a big way.
Most of us know that story, or at least the gist of it. A strong partnership with members of the Waterville and Maine community, some $75 million in Colby investment, and counting, has sparked a rejuvenation of Waterville’s downtown, and that, coupled with on-campus investments and employment, has pumped more than a billion dollars into the Maine economy. Private investment is rolling in. The Lockwood Hotel and the Paul J. Schupf Art Center are moving off the drawing board. The new Waterville isn’t a replica of the past; it’s a modern version of a small post-industrial city, with education, tech, and the arts helping to drive commerce.
I’m thrilled to see this tale of two cities unfold. If you haven’t been back to Waterville recently, you should come see it. Main Street is now testimony to what can be accomplished with vision, collaboration, and capital. And proof that optimism, joined with all three, can be a force for amazing change.
Gerry Boyle ’78, P’06