Colleges Invest So
‘What’s the Town Like?'

“A lot of universities, especially in tertiary cities, are finding that creating a more revitalized downtown is just as important as making sure everything is tight within the four walls of the campus,” said Michael Cady, the vice president of marketing for Charlestowne Hotels, a firm that specializes in managing university hotels.

The New York Times: February 25, 2019 – By Lisa Prevost

A number of small schools like Colby, in Maine, are hoping to improve off-campus amenities by helping to revitalize downtowns.

Miller Library at Colby College, which has invested $82 million in redeveloping Main Street in Waterville, Maine.
Miller Library at Colby College, which has invested $82 million in redeveloping Main Street in Waterville, Maine.Credit…Sarah Rice for The New York Times

WATERVILLE, Maine — Colby College is in an especially good place these days.

Applications to the liberal arts college are up 170 percent since 2014. An ambitious fund-raising campaign has pulled in more than $500 million over the past three years. And construction is underway on a massive campus athletic complex with an Olympic-size pool, an indoor competition center and an ice arena.

Unlike so many small colleges, “we’re doing exceptionally well,” said David A. Greene, Colby’s president.

But from its perch on a serene hilltop in Waterville, a blue-collar community of roughly 16,000 about an hour outside Portland, Colby is seeking to lift the city’s fortunes as well. Waterville, on a bank of the Kennebec River, has struggled to regain its footing since several mills shut down in the 1990s and early 2000s. Colby is aiming to supercharge an economic revival by remaking the hollowed-out downtown.

Colby is joining a number of smaller colleges that are taking a role in revitalizing flagging downtowns. If colleges are marketing distinctive academic programs and high-quality campus amenities to compete for increasingly discerning students, so, too, are they trying to leverage off-campus assets.

“A lot of universities, especially in tertiary cities, are finding that creating a more revitalized downtown is just as important as making sure everything is tight within the four walls of the campus,” said Michael Cady, the vice president of marketing for Charlestowne Hotels, a firm that specializes in managing university hotels.

“It’s a competitive market for students — it’s almost a recruitment tool,” Mr. Cady said. “The town needs to be as vibrant and culturally interesting as the campus.”

Colgate University, for example, with roughly 3,000 undergraduate students, owns a historic inn with a tavern, a bookstore and a movie theater in the Village of Hamilton, N.Y. Its efforts began in 2000 and have picked up in recent years.

Having invested about $30 million in the downtown so far, Colgate is now funding construction of affordably priced housing for university staff and other local workers, and is seeking approval for a mixed-use development that would include co-working and incubator space.

The Bill and Joan Alfond Main Street Commons, a new apartment complex for Colby College students in downtown Waterville.
The Bill and Joan Alfond Main Street Commons, a new apartment complex for Colby College students in downtown Waterville.Credit…Sarah Rice for The New York Times

“Having a vibrant village center is important for the local community, but also for visitors to the university, prospective students, current students and their families, and alumni,” said Daniel DeVries, Colgate’s media relations director.

In Waterville, Colby College is drawing on the fund-raising campaign, cash reserves and debt financing to pump some $82 million into the redevelopment of five major projects on Main Street, about two miles from campus. The first to open was a 200-bed residential hall for students and faculty in 2018, Colby’s only off-campus housing.

Across the street, it spent more than $5 million renovating a long-vacant bank building, then dangled low rents to woo an outlet of a Portland-based pizza pub and a software company looking to train local workers. An artisanal chocolate shop with a cafe is on the way.

And nearby, the college is building a 53-room hotel and restaurant, a visual and performing arts center, and an arts collaborative with studio spaces. All of the buildings will stay on the city tax rolls.

“Colby’s fate is intertwined with the city’s,” Mr. Greene said. “We recruit people from all over the world. If they don’t want to move here, it will have a major detrimental impact.”

Mr. Greene is positioning Colby to be more of an anchor and less of an island.

Previous investments in the city were “sporadic and modest,” he said, and he detected some resentment toward the school when he arrived in 2014 from the University of Chicago, where he also worked on community revitalization. He was especially troubled to hear local references to Colby as “the palace.”

“I thought that was the most damning metaphor,” Mr. Greene said. “It’s in our best interests to invest in downtown, yes, but it’s also a moral obligation.”

The new residential hall, funded in part by the Harold Alfond Foundation of Maine, is intended to put more feet on downtown streets and strengthen town-gown relations. Students must commit to community volunteerism as a condition of living there. And a 3,800-square-foot meeting space on the ground floor is open for use by community groups and city commissions.

All of the appliances for the building’s apartments were bought from a local company, as were the windows, Mr. Greene said.

The overall downtown revitalization strategy is the result of many months of planning sessions involving college officials and local leaders. That “united front” among city stakeholders, along with the substantial institutional investment, is attracting additional investment, said Christopher Flagg, the president of North River, a real estate investment, development and management company in New York.

North River owns the Hathaway Creative Center, part of the former Lockwood Mill Complex, which was converted to loft-style apartments and commercial space at the foot of Main Street. The building’s tenants now include MaineGeneral Health, a brewery, an antiques mall and a co-working space.

Last year, North River bought two vacant sister buildings and plans to invest $20 million in their redevelopment over the next two years, Mr. Flagg said.

Local investors are also stepping up. William Mitchell, an insurance agency owner and a nephew of former Senator George J. Mitchell, a Maine Democrat, recently opened an events center downtown and has acquired several buildings in the area. Previous revitalization efforts were “false starts,” he said, but Mr. Greene’s plan is “taking it to a whole new level.”

The activity has prompted a “handful of naysayers” to complain that Colby is taking over downtown, Mr. Mitchell said. But he brushes off such complaints with a simple question: “Who other than Colby could have taken the lead on such a major initiative?”

Mayor Nick Isgro said that Colby’s investments were welcome, but that the focus on the arts and restaurants should not overshadow the city’s need for better-paying, middle-class jobs. Many residents are underemployed and struggle financially, he said.

“The tightrope I’ve tried to walk is to make sure the city is taking advantage of opportunities, but that our longtime residents still have a voice at the table,” Mr. Isgro said. “It’s not revitalization if we leave people behind.”

Other indicators are encouraging. Waterville is growing, even as the statewide population has been stagnant for years, said Garvan Donegan, the director of planning and economic development at the Central Maine Growth Council. The city’s population grew 6 percent from 2010 to 2017.

“That may sound nominal,” Mr. Donegan said, “but it truly is not.”

The housing market is also healthy. The average number of days a home sits on the market is around 30, down from three or four months several years ago, said Don Plourde, the owner of Coldwell Banker Plourde Real Estate. The median price is around $160,000, which buys an older three-bedroom ranch. But the city needs new housing if it is to attract more residents, he said.

Andrew Volk, a 2005 Colby graduate, said he was optimistic about Waterville’s prospects. He and his wife, Briana, who own the Hunt + Alpine Club, a popular cocktail bar in Portland, will open a restaurant called Verna’s All Day on the ground floor of Colby’s downtown residential hall by the end of the year.

The Volks were courted by Colby’s vice president of planning, but it wasn’t a hard sell.

“We’d always kind of talked about what the next step is, and I liked that Colby would be our landlord,” Mr. Volk said.

The concept for Verna’s is fairly simple — a casual American chophouse with classic cocktails. Mr. Volk said he and his wife were mindful “that we’re creating a restaurant for Waterville, not for Portland.”