WATERVILLE — Competition from similar stores in the city has forced the landmark Ken-A-Set thrift store at 1 College Ave. to close, leaving some employees wondering what they’re going to do about work.

The store is moving to Pittsfield after it closes this month, displacing 20 employees – 15 of whom are adults with developmental disabilities. The closing is set for Sunday, Feb. 22.

Ken-A-Set is run by Skills Inc. of St. Albans, a nonprofit organization that helps adults with intellectual disabilities and other challenges. Skills Inc. already has programs in Pittsfield and Skowhegan.

As part of the move, the Ervin Center day program, which also is run by Skills Inc. and serves 24 people at the site, will relocate to the former Social Security Administration building on Front Street in Waterville, next to City Hall, Skills Chief Executive Officer Tom Davis said.

Inventory from the thrift shop, which opened in Waterville in the 1970s, will be moved to a new shop in a former Family Dollar store in the Somerset Avenue plaza in Pittsfield, said Davis.”We have struggled for years now to make (the store) profitable or even break even, and we’ve been unsuccessful in doing that,” Davis said Wednesday. “There’s a whole bunch of reasons. Primarily Waterville has a large number of second-hand stores, thrift stores, and the competition in this area with Goodwill, Salvation Army and all the various stores is pretty fierce.”

Davis said all of the Waterville employees can apply for positions at the new store in Pittsfield, though at least one employee said she won’t because she doesn’t have a car. The current location at the downtown intersection of College Avenue, Main Street and Elm Street is within walking distance for many.

Davis said the Ervin Center move to new quarters will be good for those who participate in it despite the loss of the store for the city and possible unemployment for some of the workers.

Moving the community support program to Front Street is “a huge step in the right direction,” Davis said, and Ervin Center participants will “be going from being in a basement at the Ervin Center to a one-floor, better lit, new building, and we’re very excited about it and it represents a real opportunity for us to engage in a major upgrade to our program.”

Waterville City Manager Mike Roy said the move hurts on a number of levels.

“To me it’s disappointing, as to the closure of another storefront on Main Street,” Roy said. “But it’s a fact that some people are losing their place of employment. Some people that have limited opportunities for employment are losing a place where they can work.”

Inside the store Wednesday afternoon, customers and employees said they were stunned by the news of the closing.

They said the thrift shop serves people who need the bargain prices and quick access from downtown.

Store assistant manager Michelle Labrie, who learned Monday the store is closing, said the lack of available parking near the store also contributed to the closing. She said 65 to 100 people come into the store every day to browse and shop for clothing, books, knickknacks, shoes, toys and movies.

“There’s a little bit of everything,” she said. “You never know what you’ll find.”

She said she will not be able to apply for job openings in Pittsfield because she doesn’t have a car.

Employee Gail Smiley said she is sad to see the store close.

“I love this job,” Smiley said as she tagged clothing to put out on the store racks. “A lot of people rely on this place.”

Shopper Holly Langdeau, of Waterville, who was in the store Wednesday buying toys for her nephew, said she comes to the thrift store often.

“I won’t know where to go when they close,” Langdeau said. “Why is this closing? I think it’s crazy. A lot of people come here. A lot of people need this place to be here. That’s upsetting. I don’t understand. I’m just shocked.”

Davis said the Main Street building may either be sold, leased or rented out.

The building was built in 1900 and is listed in the Waterville Assessors Database with a total valuation for the building and land of $225,000. The total work or living space is listed as about 14,500 square feet.

In 1971 the Upper Somerset Association for Retarded Children Inc. merged with the Greater Waterville Association for Retarded Children, forming Ken-A-Set, a name derived from Kennebec and Somerset counties. In 2005 Ken-A-Set merged with Sebasticook Farms, a nonprofit organization serving those with developmental disabilities, and became Skills Inc.

The agency has other community support services and programs in central Maine as well as residential support and waiver homes. Skills operates work support programs at the Dill Center and a thrift store in Skowhegan, as well as a hardwood sawmill in St. Albans. Skills also has operations in Waterville on Quarry Road, Industrial Road and North Street, according to its website.

Doug Harlow — 612-2367

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