WATERVILLE — The ceremonial shovels hit the dirt Wednesday as officials launched construction of a $25.5 million Colby College residential complex downtown that will house about 200 students and faculty and staff members involved in a special civic engagement curriculum.

About 100 Colby and city officials, as well as students, residents and economic development organizations, turned out for the groundbreaking at 150 Main St. on the northeast tip of The Concourse, which Colby bought earlier this year. The 100,000-square-foot complex is expected to open in August 2018.

Mayor Nick Isgro said a lot of milestones have been met along the two-year journey to get to this point, since city and Colby officials, business advocates and others started discussing ways to help revitalize downtown. Thanking and praising Colby President David Greene for his efforts, Isgro said the groundbreaking was a symbol of the symbiotic relationship between the city and Colby.

“This community has come together in a way that I have never seen in one shared goal we all have an interest in,” Isgro said.

Fifty years ago, the land on which the crowd stood was the site of controversy when, as part of urban renewal efforts, several buildings were eliminated, removing a large section of the vibrant downtown, according to Isgro, who said his grandfather argued before the city’s aldermen against doing so and eliminating that tax base.

As the sun shone on the construction site and wind whipped at the microphone, Greene thanked attendees for coming and said it was amazing to see the site cleared and ready for building a 100,000-square-foot residential complex with a retail component on the ground floor. The northeast tip of the first floor will be a glassed-in community space available for use by Colby and nonprofit organizations in the community, as well as for City Council meetings.

Greene touched on the city and Colby’s relationship throughout history, noting the college was founded in 1813, more than 200 years ago, before Maine became a state. Taking an extraordinary risk, Baptist ministers created the liberal arts college that eventually became Colby. But it did not happen without bumps and challenges along the way, according to Greene. In 1929, the country was facing a great depression and the college had to move. The people of Waterville raised more than $100,000 to buy land on Mayflower Hill for that purpose. Colby’s efforts now to help revitalize downtown is “payback,” according to Greene.

The college employs more than 900 people and pays $55 million a year in wages to workers, the vast majority of whom live in Waterville and the area. Colby also gives $6.5 million a year to support Colby students from Maine, according to Greene.

“Colby has been an important employer, but it’s also been an extraordinary educator,” he said.

As part of downtown revitalization, Colby bought the former Hains building across Main Street from the construction site and is spending more than $5 million to renovate it into offices for technology group CGI, some Colby offices and retail on the first floor. The building is expected to open this summer. Colby also bought the former Levine’s clothing store at 9 Main St., which has been demolished, and plans to build a 42-room boutique hotel on the spot that will feature a restaurant, employ 45 people with an annual payroll of $1.7 million and create about 140 construction jobs.

Greene said the efforts would not have been possible without the partnership among Colby, the city and others.

“You’re going to see some very fast work out here in the next several months,” he said.

In the crowd Wednesday were Colby freshmen Siobhan Pascal, 19, of Dominica; Emily Carter, 19, of Oklahoma; and Parker Sikora, 18, of New Hampshire, all of whom work in the college’s alumni center. They said they have the opportunity to speak to alumni and they explain the work that Colby is doing with downtown revitalization.

All three said students and staff members are excited about the college’s plans to integrate further into the community. Pascal said that being able to interact with people in the community and live in an apartment in the complex where students can make their own meals will give them a sense of independence.

While many students already take part in community service activities such as volunteering at schools, the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter, the South End Teen Center and other places and are involved in the Colby Cares About Kids program, actually having students living downtown will strengthen that bond further and create a healthier relationship between Colby and the community, the students said.

“My hope is that it is working to leverage a stronger relationship between students at Colby and the greater Waterville area,” Sikora said.

Carter, an environmental policy and art major, and the others said they hope to live in the residential complex during their college career. Carter said she is interested in public art spaces and wants to get involved in that in the city.

“I love Waterville,” Carter said. “It reminds me so much of my hometown. I love the community service aspect of it and I don’t want to just be on the hill. I want to be in the community of Waterville.”

Cindy Jacobs, president of the Waterville Public Library board of trustees, who also serves on the city’s parking study committee, clapped as Colby and city officials and others dipped silver shovels into a pile of dirt at the site of the future residential complex.

“This is the best thing that can happen to Waterville,” Jacobs said. “We need a lot of young people in town. We’re looking for civic engagement, and it will bring a lot of volunteerism to the whole community. This community has needed a shot in the arm economically for a while. We are fortunate to have Colby stepping in to help improve not only our downtown, but also getting involved by supporting our schools and attracting young people to the area.”

John Butera, senior economic adviser to Gov. Paul LePage, was on hand for the groundbreaking. Butera said it takes a lot of people and time to get to where Waterville and Colby were Wednesday with revitalization efforts that will boost the economy and create jobs.

“You need that driving force, and Colby is that driving force,” Butera said.

Butera, who with Greene and others helped draw CGI to Waterville, was executive director of the Central Maine Growth Council from 2001 to 2010 and followed LePage, who is a former Waterville mayor, to the governor’s office.

Butera recalled his time in Waterville working on economic development and trying to attract businesses and jobs to the city.

“We were successful with T-Mobile at FirstPark and developing Hathaway. Those were two large-scale projects.”

Now, he said, with unemployment low, at 3 percent, the focus is on workforce development and getting people who are underemployed or not in the workforce trained for and placed in jobs.

Greene said after the ceremony that the residential complex and retail site is expected to open in August 2018 and the hotel in late 2018 or early 2019.

“I think the sun is shining on Waterville today,” he said, standing with Colby communications director Kate Carlisle. “It’s the start of something important and it really feels like the race has begun right now. It’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon, but we’re going to be running it as fast and as hard as we can because we want to make sure that we can really help to address the challenges Waterville is facing right now.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247

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Twitter: @AmyCalder17