WATERVILLE — Colby College and Waterville Creates! are working to raise $18 million to $20 million in the hopes of transforming The Center at 93 Main St. downtown into a thriving art and film center with a contemporary art gallery on the first floor and a relocated Railroad Square Cinema with new equipment and seating on the second.

The project will transform Main Street at a time when the college and city continue to revitalize the heart of the city with an eye toward creating a vibrant downtown and making it a destination place. Plans call for shaving off part of the south wall of the The Center building to expand green space in Castonguay Square and building a glass facade and atrium facing the square.

Colby President David Greene said $8 million has been raised so far in contributions. The project launch depends on raising $10 million to $12 million more.

“My own view is that this is such an extraordinarily high-impact project that when it becomes public, people will understand what a difference this will make to Waterville,” he said. “We’ve got a vision. We’ve got a plan.”

He said Colby and Waterville Creates! would love to start the project in the next year, with an 18-month construction period to follow.

“If we can raise the money for this, I think we’d move as quickly as we could,” he said.

Shannon Haines, executive director of Waterville Creates!, which owns the building, has seen the city’s struggles and successes over many years, having formerly directed the Waterville Main Street Program and the Maine Film Center. She has been director of the Maine International Film Festival for many years.

Haines sees the transformation of The Center into a destination for visual arts, theater, film and arts education as having a huge effect downtown. Waterville already boasts significant arts recognition in that it is home to the largest art museum in Maine, the Colby College Museum of Art, she said. Railroad Square is the only Sundance Art House project theater in the state, the annual film festival is the largest and longest-running festival in Maine and the Waterville Opera House in City Hall is a producing, historic theater, she said. Common Street Arts already is located in The Center under the umbrella of Waterville Creates!

She envisions a vibrant downtown with people attending the Waterville Opera House, which is connected to The Center, and patronizing the cinema at the arts center, visiting the art gallery, dining and shopping and making downtown a regular destination.

Haines is optimistic that the money will be raised to launch the project, as all of the organizations to be housed in the building have been developed and strengthened over time and have a track record.

“It’s a great vision to sell,” she said. “It’s very compelling.”

ARTS CENTER PART OF WIDER VISION

Architects already have spent a lot of time designing the project. They are GO Logic, of Belfast, and Susan T. Rodriguez, of New York City.

Colby is investing millions of dollars in the downtown by building a $25 million, 103,000-square-foot residential complex at 150 Main St. that will house about 200 students, faculty and staff involved in community service and civic engagement. That building, to be named Bill and Joan Alfond Main Street Commons, also will feature a glassed-in meeting space available to the community and overlooking Main Street.

Colby has renovated the former Waterville Savings Bank building at 173 Main St. and is planning to build a boutique hotel at the south end of Main Street downtown.

Transforming The Center into a destination for the arts and film is expected to draw not only the people living and working downtown, but also those from away. The Maine International Film Festival, a project of the Maine Film Center, would be based at The Center as the cinema and Waterville Opera House host festival films and activities. Railroad Square and the film festival are under the Maine Film Center umbrella.

The Maine Film Center; Waterville Creates!, including Common Street Arts; the contemporary art gallery, which would be an extension of the Colby College Museum of Art; and art classes would all be housed in the same complex.

Waterville Creates! leases space in the 64,000-square-foot building to entities including WABI TV5; Parsifal Corp., a moving company; Community Dental Center; Maine Made and More gift shop; and Hardy Girls Healthy Women. They will have to move elsewhere as part of the plans.

The building size would be reduced to about 32,000 square feet, and the main entrance to the building — and all the arts venues, including the Opera House — would be off Castonguay Square, though there still would be an entrance on Main Street. The glass facade would make the building and activities inside more visible from Main Street.

“Castonguay Square should be great,” Greene said. “It really should be just this wonderful civic space in the heart of downtown Waterville.”

Just inside the entrance to the new center would be a spacious gathering area with a cafe, chairs and tables that overlook the square through the glass facade. A box office for both the cinema and the Opera House is envisioned.

“It’s a building that really is struggling in terms of its systems, its organization, its ability to keep water where it is supposed to be,” Greene said. “We’ve been coming together to talk about how it could have new life and bring improvements to the city.”

CREATING JOBS, DRAWING INVESTORS

People are buying and investing in buildings downtown and talking about renovating upper floors into living and work spaces. Values of properties in Waterville are beginning to rise, according to Greene.

“With the investments, increase in property values and population increase, it really starts to put a different set of possibilities in place, I think, for Waterville right now,” Greene said.

With all the activity occurring downtown and on the Colby campus — the college hired 100 new people last year — Greene expects many more jobs will be created in the areas of the arts, retail, technology, education and the service industry.

CGI Group, drawn to Waterville by Greene, as well as local and state officials, is a technology business that will move this month from Hathaway Creative Center to the third floor of 173 Main St. As it grows, it will expand into the fourth and second floors, according to Brian Clark, Colby’s vice president for planning.

Portland Pie Co. is renovating and moving into the ground floor of 173 Main and expects to employ 50 people. Other businesses are being courted for another ground-floor space in that building as well as the ground floor of 150 Main. The boutique hotel will employ about 45 people in hospitality service and other jobs, according to Greene and Clark.

“Our goal is 1,000 new jobs in Waterville if this happens,” Greene said, referring to the arts center project. “That starts to change the tone and tenor of downtown.”

Greene points to Colby alumni who attended the college in the 1970s and settled here, becoming an integral part of the community and making a big impact on the city. They include former Mayor Karen Heck, who was a founder of Hardy Girls Healthy Women and is a supporter of the arts; City Manager Michael Roy; Paul Boghossian, who created Hathaway Center; and Ken Eisen, a founder of Railroad Square and owner of the film distribution company, Shadow Distribution, based downtown. Eisen also is a founder of and programmer for the Maine International Film Festival.

Greene envisions more young Colby graduates wanting to stay and follow suit. Colby students already have started to create their own businesses downtown.

“I just think the more that we can do to keep talented graduates of our colleges in Maine, the better we’ll be off as a state,” Greene said.

Sharon Corwim, who is the Carolyn Muzzy Director of the Colby College Museum of Art and Chief Curator, sees the new center and Colby gallery there as an opportunity to build on existing programs and partnerships while helping to cement Waterville’s identity as an arts destination, according to a Colby news release.

“The Colby Museum has always played an important role in this community, and now, as it expands into downtown Waterville, it will reach an even broader audience,” Corwin said. “We see this gallery as a front door to the Colby Museum and an opportunity to integrate more deeply into our community.”

Mike Perreault, executive director of the Maine Film Center, is a Van Buren native and 2013 Colby graduate who created his own major there — cinema studies. He got involved in the annual film festival and decided to stay in Waterville.

He said the relocated Railroad Square Cinema would have three screens on the second floor of the new arts center that would seat 150, 75 and 75 patrons. The transformed center also would house classroom space. The film center already hosts year-round film workshops and lectures, he said.

“It’s really going to change the entire game for us,” he said.

Railroad Square would continue to operate where it is off Chaplin Street until the new center is completed, according to Perreault.

Asked if the cinema in the new center would maintain the Railroad Square name, Perreault said officials are not ready to comment on that.

“Our audiences can be assured that the Maine Film Center will continue to screen the nationally renowned independent films and programs that they have come to appreciate and support over these past 40 years,” he said. “We anticipate that there will be ample parking for our guests within close proximity to the downtown Waterville arts center.”

The Center building opened on Main Street in 1930 as Montgomery Ward, a department store, which survived many years, according to Greene. It later was home to Sterns Department Store. Colby College, under then-President William Cotter, put up money to help buy the building from Sterns and organized a group of people to form the Waterville Regional Arts and Community Center, which later shortened the building name to The Center. WRACC is run by a board of directors and Waterville Creates! is doing business as WRACC, according to Haines.

Waterville Creates!’ mission is to promote, support and expand arts and cultural assets, increase access to creative opportunities and strengthen economic and community development. It also coordinates arts and cultural programming by working with Colby, the Film Center, the Opera House, Common Street Arts and Waterville Public Library.

In addition to its work downtown, Colby, which enrolls 2,000 students from more than 80 countries, is constructing a $200 million athletic center on campus and is in the midst of a $750 million capital campaign. The arts center project is part of that overall campaign.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

 

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