July 1, 2013

Changing priorities hit Head of Falls

Despite investment in Waterville's waterfront infrastructure, focus is put on other areas.

By AMY CALDER Morning Sentinel

WATERVILLE - Efforts to draw businesses to the city's waterfront apparently are in limbo, as Mayor Karen Heck and other city officials are focusing instead on filling vacant buildings and supporting existing businesses.

"It seems to me we have a lot of opportunity to really make a difference in Waterville," Heck said last week. "We have great bones in the city. Why aren't we building on those bones rather than building new buildings?"

As recently as three years ago, city officials were trying to market Head of Falls, following up on a consultant's recommendation that the 12-acre site between Front Street and the Kennebec River would be a good location for restaurants, shopping areas, commercial and office space, open green areas and public gathering spots.

Several years ago, the city invested $1.5 million in the waterfront, installing underground utilities including sewer, water and electricity there with the idea that if it were site-ready, businesses would be more likely to build there.

That project also included The Two-Cent Plaza, which includes a park, information kiosk, lights and benches and improvements made to the Two-Cent Bridge.

Heck, interviewed about downtown development last week by the Morning Sentinel, said the city should be putting all its efforts into supporting existing businesses, such as the Hathaway Creative Center. The city also should help Hathaway owner Paul Boghossian to develop the two adjacent buildings that housed Marden's Surplus & Salvage and Central Maine Power Co., she said.

When Heck took office in 2012, the Waterville Development Corp., which was charged with developing the waterfront, had just issued requests for proposals from businesses to see if there was interest in Head of Falls.

"No one even responded," she said.

Heck said she put together a subcommittee to discuss options.

"We came up with two areas of focus that would be much more productive than trying to market Head of Falls, which is a beautiful space," she said.

The subcommittee went back to the development corporation with the recommendation to focus on existing buildings and businesses, instead of Head of Falls, she said.

Waterfront is just not a priority, she said.

Heck said the airport became a focus. The city bought 62 acres near the airport and made improvements to the facility; officials also looked at finding uses for empty buildings, including the former Levine's store, which has since been purchased and is being renovated.

The vacant Hains building at the corner of Appleton and Main streets has drawn interest from prospective buyers, she said. Someone also is interested in producing hay logs in the former Harris Baking Co. building.

City Manager Michael Roy said the city has a contract with the development group to market and advertise Head of Falls on behalf of the city. Roy said he assumes city councilors are OK with the focus on empty and existing buildings as opposed to developing Head of Falls, as no one has questioned that direction.

"My continuing concern is the amount of infrastructure investment the city has made at Head of Falls, and do we intend to take advantage of that or not," Roy said. 

Amy Calder can be contacted at 861-9247 or at:



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