WATERVILLE — The city has a beautiful opera house, a popular international film festival, top-notch colleges, a new four-season recreation area, a world-class museum and excellent schools.
So, what can be done to attract more people to the city, maintain the residents it has and enhance its assets?
Those were some of the questions raised and discussed Monday night at the first of several meetings hosted by the city to start updating its comprehensive plan.
The current plan was adopted by the City Council in 1997 and City Planner Ann Beverage has updated demographic information in the plan.
But now it is time for residents to weigh in on what they want the city to look like in the next 10 years, officials said.
About 30 councilors, Planning Board and charter commission members and others turned out for the meeting, held at Waterville Public Library.
More meetings will be held, at 7 p.m. Feb. 11 and 25, March 11 and 25, and April 8 on the fourth floor of the library to continue discussions and formulate proposals for the comprehensive plan.
Meeting facilitator Bill Najpauer said it is critical that the public give input.
“Your involvement in this process is really key,” Najpauer said.
Beverage said the city’s population peaked in 1960 and had been declining since then until the last census reported the population was up by 117 people.
While the city’s population decreased 15.9 percent from 1960 to 2010, the population of the region as a whole increased 40 percent, she said.
“As you look at Waterville as a region, we’re doing pretty well,” she said.
Najpauer said he thought it was terrific that the population increased by 117 and asked if people thought that trend would continue.
The question sparked a long discussion about how to attract young people to Waterville, how to keep them here and what assets need investment.
Resident Ernest Grolimund said people in his church had been talking about just that — that the energy crisis had a dramatic effect on the area and as the price of gas and oil go up, people do not want to travel, so they move to the city.
“They want to stay close,” he said. “I think that’s a big factor.”
City Councilor John O’Donnell, D-Ward 5, said the increase in general assistance, and the poverty rate, tells us that a lot of people coming into the city receive state aid.
Council Chairman Erik Thomas, D-Ward 4, said it is important to focus on the positives — on what people want the city to be. It has tremendous assets that a lot of other cities do not have, he said.
A discussion about the city’s old housing stock prompted Mayor Karen Heck to say that people love old houses and young people have the inclination and energy to fix them up.
“I bought my house for $40,000,” she said. “I worked 20 years to fix it up. That’s what people do when they’re young. I think this is a town that is going to be saved by young people.”
Thomas said he started booking concerts in the city because that is the kind of entertainment he wanted to have himself. A lot of young people told him they thought about leaving Waterville because there was nothing to do but now are staying because there is more being offered them.
“So, if we’re talking about what attracts younger people, those are the kind of things they want,” he said.
He and others said they also want Head of Falls to be developed as it is an asset, but has seen little activity.
The way to attract people to Waterville in significant numbers, according to Michael Donihue, is with economic opportunity. The city must invest in education, infrastructure and cultural activities, he said.
He cited Head of Falls, Hathaway Creative Center and places like Barrels Community Market as assets that must be supported.
“There are seeds of community activism here that need to be nurtured, and people are your best asset,” he said.
Najpauer and Beverage urged people to go to the city’s website, www.waterville-me.gov and click on Planning Department and Comprehensive Plan to keep abreast of meetings, agendas and topics to be discussed.
Amy Calder — 861-9247