This past week in Waterville, while the fading sun of a warmer than normal October day still lit the bottom of Main Street, the last remnants of the old Levine’s department store came down to make way for a new 48 bed boutique hotel and restaurant.
Welcome to the renaissance of Waterville.
The new hotel, along with a new student residence hall and rehabbed office space readying to house 200 high tech jobs for Massachusetts based firm Collaborative Consulting are the results of an announcement one year ago from Colby College president David Greene that the Waterville based school would be investing $20 million in our downtown in new taxable development.
For a city still recovering from the mill closures of the 1990’s and transitioning to the new economy of the 21st century, the news could not have been more well received.
As a private nonprofit, Colby College is a tax exempt holder of very highly valued real estate in the city. Over the last decade as good paying jobs declined and property tax burdens shifted to fewer and fewer payers, large and affluent nonprofits such as colleges and hospitals have become targets for municipal taxpayers all over the state of Maine. Rightfully, taxpayers question the use of so many resources including public works, police and fire that are put into these institutions while struggling home and business owners pay for the services through a regressive property tax.
The nonprofit debate often comes down to an “us versus them” conversation. Fortunately, President Greene came to Waterville and started a dialogue with the city, understanding that Waterville and Colby’s future, success or fail, is together. When working to attract new professors, students, doctors, directors and other talent, nonprofits need Waterville to be a vibrant and economically self-sustaining community.
Of course, not all nonprofits have large multi-million dollar endowments. Many are small shoe-string operations that provide critical services such as adoption and mental healthcare services. Still, we cannot overlook our mutual reliance on each other and that includes the needs of struggling taxpayers.
Since last year, the City of Waterville, Colby College, and other nonprofit leaders and community stakeholders have come together to map out a vision of investment and revitalization that has become the greatest undertaking of the city since the 1960’s. This has spawned additional investment that has already resulted in a burgeoning commercial real estate market, new small business growth and Collaborative Consulting not only announcing 200 good paying high-tech jobs, but also a collaboration with Thomas College to help create tomorrow’s skilled workforce. Private investment in several of our buildings has allowed for an extension of Waterville’s downtown Historic District.
Currently, the City of Waterville has partnered with Colby College and the Maine Department of Transportation to study and build a strategic plan for redesigning traffic flow and parking for both current and future development.
As the former Levine’s department store comes down, those of us who remember Waterville’s past are sad to say goodbye to a piece of our history, no matter how dilapidated the building might have been. Out of the ashes of the past century however, a new era for Waterville has begun. It seems fitting too, as Colby president David Greene stated recently that “the passion of Pacy and Ludy Levine for Colby and their unending generosity to Colby students are themes of stories I hear over and over again.”
A century ago, when Colby College was at its own turning point, the City of Waterville and its generous people came to the rescue and purchased the land that Colby now calls home. Today, Colby College is returning the favor.
Nonprofits and municipalities have a long history of relying on each other for a mutually shared success. Nonprofits should not take for granted the high cost to municipalities for the services provided by the tax payers where they reside. The question of services and taxation is not going away and they need to find a way to be part of the solution to their local economies.
The partnership between Colby College and the City of Waterville is a great example of how to do this.