Waterville, Maine is the 15th most populous city in the state, with a population that hovers around 15,000 people. The median income of its residents is $20,574, which is 33 percent lower than the US average. A walk downtown will reveal strings of boarded-up businesses, weathered store signs, and vacated buildings. Although the downtown area is a mile away from Mayflower Hill, to many students the gap between college and town is much wider. As students of the College, we must realize our collective role in the community of Waterville, a role that is often overlooked. For a large percentage of the student body, there is a sense of campus superiority and a gap in understanding born of privilege. Despite Waterville’s struggles, the residents of the College are Watervillians as well as college students, at least whenever they are on campus. The state of the town we occupy is an ever-pertinent concern, one that the College is and should be wholly a part of.
In colonial and early industrial America, Waterville acted as an important stop along shipping routes. The Kennebec River, which runs through Waterville, is one of the southernmost connectors between the Atlantic Ocean and Canada, making the city’s location valuable for trading and maritime transportation. Over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the town became known for its textile and fabric production. These industries rose to become the heart and soul of Waterville’s industry, especially due to the presence of the Hathaway Mill. The mill was designed in the late-nineteenth century by Amos Lockwood, before being a manufacturer for the Hathaway Shirt Company for 45 years. Textiles produced in town were used on an international scale and were even used to create uniforms in the Civil War. However, the common trend of movement to foreign manufacturing put the mill out of business in 2002. With the loss of manufacturing, the economic state of the town began to steadily deteriorate.
Today, Waterville is classified as a micropolis, or a sustaining economic center with less than 50,000 people. Despite this, many of the available jobs and financial generators are unskilled or insecure. Most of the money generated within Waterville comes from the commercial sector, in large shopping centers such as Walmart. The presence of national chains has hurt the existence of small businesses, though it is necessary to uphold both the production and consumption needs of the residents. The College also exists as a large economic player in Waterville. Both the infrastructure and the students supply money and labor to the wider community. Many local businesses have a large share of their revenue coming from students, and many of the staff and faculty that work at the college live within the town limits.
The dynamics between college and town are not unique to the College and Waterville. However, disparities between life on Mayflower Hill and the rest of Waterville have situated the College in a unique position. After becoming president in 2014, David Greene claimed commitment to revitalizing a stagnating Waterville economy. The first efforts to achieve this came through meetings with local and state officials and the fundraising of $200 million dedicated to spurring development. Existing plans can be categorized into three phases, the first phase being the completion of the Paul J. Schupf Art Center in late 2022. The center cost a total of $18 million and was made in partnership with Waterville community organizers. It offers services accessible to the general public as well as students, and its opening was celebrated by civic leaders and administrators last month. Rehearsal space for orchestras or receptions, arts performances, educational classes, and film showings are just a few of the available services the Schupf Art Center offers.
The College has also helped to divert large amounts of financial resources toward Waterville. According to Garvan Donegan, director of planning and economic development on the Central Maine Growth Council, the College has been involved in the allocation of $54 million in funding in the downtown area. This has already led to material progress, and Waterville’s labor growth has grown six percent more than Kennebec County as a whole.
Through an emphasis on civic engagement, the College has already begun a lengthy campaign to improve the economic state of Waterville. Necessary critiques, however, have arisen about the College’s allocation of funds. Questions may arise about the proper distribution of the College money and whether the millions of dollars going into Waterville would be better spent on campus or student life improvement. These concerns are valid, though, on its face, the growing investment into Waterville has proved as a net positive to the community.
Throughout its history, the city of Waterville has undergone significant changes in its economic and developmental composition. In recent years, the College has become a leader in attempts to revitalize the infrastructure and development of the town, through projects such as downtown renovation and the building of the Paul J. Shupf Art Center. Though future investment in Waterville is up in the air, existing efforts have been a spark for community-wide improvement.
~ Wyatt Tune `26