WATERVILLE — Colby College has bought two vacant downtown buildings — the former Levine’s clothing store and the Hains building — in an effort to help revitalize the city’s historic center, build on arts and cultural assets and spur economic development.

City government and development officials Wednesday said they are thrilled with the purchase and plans to renovate, many using the word “exciting” to describe the college-city partnership and at least two referring to it as a dream come true.

Mayor Nick Isgro said Wednesday that over the past couple of years, “the city really has been crying for help from our nonprofit community to help us find solutions to challenges we face, including a shrinking tax base.”

“This is really exciting because Colby has stepped up to say, ‘We’re your partners,'” he said. “When you have people like David Greene willing to put his hand out and say, ‘We’re here — we’re all tied in this together,’ great things happen.

“I’m really optimistic and looking forward to the next couple of years and watching how this continues to unfold.”

The move is part of an effort spearheaded by college President David A. Greene, who has been meeting with city officials, business leaders, downtown organizations and community advocates to help identify what the city needed.

Officials for several years have said the two buildings several blocks apart downtown on Main Street, both long vacant, should be renovated for reuse, so the college bought them.

Colby officials said they are not yet certain what will be done with the buildings, but the group led by Greene has previously talked about possibilities for the downtown area that include new retailers, residential space and a hotel.

“We’re in a strategic planning process,” Colby spokeswoman Ruth Jackson said. “There are no solid plans for what to do with the properties, but they’re such important properties on Main Street. The Hains building has been vacant a long time. It obviously has been in disrepair for a long time and we are eager to do something with it, but we don’t know what it’s going to be right now.”

Colby bought the Hains building, at 173 Main St., at the corner of Appleton Street, on Wednesday for $220,000. The college bought the Levine’s building, at 9 Main St., on July 10 for $200,000.

Hains building owner Robert Hains, of Portland and formerly of Waterville, said in an email Wednesday night that he thinks the effort will be great for downtown Waterville.

“Colby College’s acquisition will preserve a historic building,” Hains wrote. “I salute their initiative to revitalize Main Street.”

Jackson said both properties will remain on the city’s tax rolls. Much of Colby’s property is tax-exempt because the college is a nonprofit institution, something that has drawn criticism from some in the past as the city’s tax rate has risen.

The Levine’s building was set to be renovated by Connecticut businessman Michael Soracchi into apartments on upper floors and retail on the first floor, but he and the city clashed about specifics of the financing, and the project was dropped. Soracchi couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday. His voicemail message said his mailbox was full.

Jackson said Colby hopes to help the city change the character of the building and area around it, including improving pedestrian access to and from the Hathaway Creative Center on Water Street across Spring Street to the south and the downtown.

“That spot at the south end of Main Street is an important location,” she said.

Ideas that have been brought up by city and development officials for helping to make the downtown more vibrant include developing a boutique hotel, small restaurants, an anchor retail store, museum store, gallery and other amenities; helping to improve signs and make the gateway to the city more attractive; improving the look and feel of Main Street; adding living space for college students and faculty members; improving the waterfront; and helping make the arts more visible.

Jackson, however, emphasized Wednesday that no specific plans have been made yet and that efforts will be ongoing. “This is going to be a long process,” she said.

DRAWING PRAISE

Colby’s involvement is drawing praise from city leaders, including Isgro, who has attended three meetings with Greene and others. One more meeting will be held, the mayor said.

“This really is a dynamic partnership that will be a positive impact on all of the residents of Waterville,” Isgro said.

Isgro said the steering committee has met at different downtown sites the last several weeks, including at The Center, Hathaway and Barrel’s Community Market. Officials from Waterville Main Street, the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce and other organizations took part in discussions.

City Councilor Dana Bushee, D-Ward 6, which includes downtown, also is on the committee and says people’s hopes for the Levine’s and Hains buildings were really only fantasy, as no one had come forward with enough money and vision to develop them.

The fact that Colby has bought them and is embarking on a long-term partnership with the city and business leaders to help make the downtown more vibrant is exciting, she said.

“It’s a dream come true for Waterville,” she said. “I think this will add some energy to downtown. The goal is to have people living downtown and working in downtown, and Colby’s really coming in and giving us the ability to make that happen.”

She noted that when Greene was executive vice president at the University of Chicago, he headed a similar $250 million community redevelopment effort, revitalizing a blighted retail district north of campus.

“The president has really stepped up to not just talk the talk — he’s really walking the walk,” Bushee said.

She said he has flown in architects to attend the steering committee meetings.

“We’ve been meeting with them and they’ve shown us what can be done,” she said. “Before Colby came into the picture, it was fantasy and daydreaming and wish list.”

Bushee echoed Jackson and Isgro’s comments that while a lot of great ideas are being discussed, nothing is yet cast in stone.

“It’s amazing. It really is,” Bushee said. “I can’t tell you how amazing this process has been. It’s really exciting. It’s going to change the whole dynamic of downtown.”

In Greene’s inaugural address at Colby last year, he vowed to help revitalize Waterville’s historic center, emphasizing the importance of Colby’s 200-year partnership with Waterville.

“The ingredients are here for a renaissance of this proud city, and Colby College should partner with and support local leaders to accelerate the pace of improvements and stimulate economic growth and prosperity,” Greene said during the address.

In a prepared statement Wednesday, Greene said, “We feel extremely fortunate to be partnering with the city and business community to stimulate immediate economic activity and help contribute to Waterville’s long-term growth and prosperity.

“The acquisition of these properties is one step in a larger plan that we’ve been developing with city leaders to support local businesses as well as to encourage new commercial and residential activity downtown,” he said. “We share a view with the business and civic community that Waterville is poised to once again become a great destination in central Maine, and Colby is pleased to be a significant investor in that future.”

BUILDING ON STRENGTHS

Steering committee member Kimberly Lindlof, who is also president and chief executive officer of the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce, said Wednesday that she and others are thrilled about the investment Colby is making in the downtown and about the potential integration of students and faculty into the downtown business community.

“It’s exciting for the businesses that are downtown because hopefully it’ll invigorate the businesses even more and strengthen the connectivity between the college and the city of Waterville, the citizens and business owners,” she said.

Waterville Main Street Executive Director Jennifer Olsen said that when she first came to Waterville in the role of executive director, the Levine’s and Hains buildings were high on the list of priorities as downtown property that needed attention. The city’s comprehensive plan stated that improving the buildings would make a big difference to the downtown and how people feel about it, she said.

“Certainly, this is a Main Street director’s dream come true because it has been such a priority,” she said.

Steering committee members include former Waterville mayor and Colby graduate Karen Heck, Hathaway developer Paul Boghossian, and Shannon Haines, who now is Maine Film Center director, as well as director of the Maine International Film Festival.

The group has talked about how to build on the strengths already in place in the city, including the Waterville Opera House, Common Street Arts, Railroad Square Cinema, the Maine International Film Festival and the Colby Museum of Art, members said. They discussed the importance of stimulating activity on Main Street, having more people living downtown and having a small hotel that enable visitors to stay downtown, shop there and eat in the restaurants. Discussions will continue, according to Jackson.

“We’re going to be constantly looking at this, assessing things and moving forward accordingly,” she said.

Colby also has been involved in recent months with helping the city study traffic and pedestrian options for the intersection of Spring, Water, Main and Bridge streets, which is near the Levine’s building. One possibility includes turning it into a roundabout-type intersection with grassy space at the center.

Meanwhile, Colby officials hope others will follow suit in helping the historic city center grow and thrive, according to Jackson.

“We hope that this activity will inspire others to want to invest in Main Street and be part of this,” she said.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17