WATERVILLE — Colby College President David Greene envisions a downtown where students live in apartments on Main Street and are engaged in the community in structured ways, contributing to the life of the city.

They might be tutoring in schools, helping out at a social service agency, volunteering in a soup kitchen or working at Hardy Girls Healthy Women.

“They would do that as part of their program,” Greene said Tuesday. “That would be a requirement of living in that house.”

The idea is that students go out into the world after leaving academia and, armed with the experience of living and volunteering downtown, have a greater understanding of why civic engagement and partnerships with communities are important.

However, that concept is only a small part of Greene’s greater vision, which is that of a vibrant downtown so compelling that people of all ages want to live, work, recreate and visit there.

In addition to valuable assets already existing in the city — the Waterville Opera House, Railroad Square Cinema, the hospitals, colleges and the Colby Museum of Art — there also would be art galleries, new retail stores and restaurants. College students and faculty members would live downtown. Traffic would move more slowly through downtown, and perhaps sidewalks would be made wider to afford shoppers and diners the leisure of spending time outside on the streets.

Connections to the city’s waterfront at Head of Falls and the Hathaway Creative Center would be more pedestrian-friendly and attractive. With more people living and working downtown and more reasons to visit, businesses would thrive.

Waterville Mayor Nicholas Isgro shares Greene’s vision and has been meeting with him, city officials, business owners and downtown advocates over several months to discuss ways to make it a reality. With input gleaned from those meetings, the work already has begun, Greene and Isgro said Tuesday in an interview in the mayor’s office at City Hall.

Colby bought three vacant and deteriorating buildings downtown — 9 Main St., the former Levine’s clothing store; 173 Main St., known as the Hains building; and 16-20 Main St., the former site of a tattoo parlor — with a plan for renovating them and, in some cases, partnering with developers and investors to do so. While Greene says it’s too early to say what each building will be used for, work to renovate them will start soon.

“We’ve been going through careful structural analyses and very serious environmental analyses in the buildings to see if remediation is needed,” he said.

One or more buildings might not be structurally sound enough to salvage and would have to be razed, but new buildings could be built in the empty space.

Colby plans to buy more property downtown but does not plan to own the buildings forever, according to Greene.

“There will be more,” Greene said. “It may be soon. … I don’t have a particular date and I can’t tell you which building yet. Our desire is not to be a large permanent landowner on Main Street. We want to be a catalyst for development. We may not hold these buildings for the long run.”

Already, Colby and the city are courting investors, and developers are visiting the city and taking stock of possibilities.

“With that kind of help, we think we can actually get to a point where we have a sustainable, market-driven economy on Main Street,” Greene said.

Developers have shown high interest in opportunities downtown, he said. “It’s a very good sign. I see one encouraging sign after another.”

A BOOST FOR THE CITY

The city is grateful for the support Colby and Greene are lending to the renaissance effort, according to Isgro. Colby’s hiring of urban planners, architects and engineers is far beyond what the city could afford to do on its own, he said.

Both he and Greene noted that the effort is not just Colby’s or the city’s, but a partnership shared by both and by city leaders, businesses and downtown organizations. Public meetings to gain more input from Waterville residents will be scheduled, the mayor said.

The effort not only will make the city more attractive for families who want to raise their children here; it is expected it also will prompt businesses to move here and expand the tax base.

“Obviously, having that focus start downtown, where we have the highest concentration of tax base, makes total sense,” said Isgro, who is the controller at Skowhegan Savings Bank.

The partnership efforts would extend beyond the downtown and include the Colby campus on Mayflower Hill, where a baseball-softball complex is under construction and expected to be completed next month — and it will be available for use by local schools.

Greene said Colby is thinking about investing further in athletics on its campus by building a new athletic complex and investing in the performing arts by building a performing arts center.

“We’ve actually thought about both of those and how we’d do that in the context of what we’d do in the city,” he said, adding that a performing arts center could be built in a way that connects it to the Waterville Opera House, for instance, and the community could use the athletic facility.

They would serve as economic development tools as well, he said.

For instance, Colby’s pool in its current athletic center is outdated, and if Colby built a new athletic center with a 50-meter pool, it would be the only 50-meter pool in Maine, drawing young swimmers to competitions from all over northern New England, according to Greene. The swimmers and their families would stay, eat and shop in Waterville.

“That alone can drive a lot of new money to businesses downtown and greater Waterville,” he said.

Greene said plans for a new athletic center on campus are in the discussion stages.

“We’re working on that right now. We don’t have a decision yet on what that would look like, but we just went through the planning process.”

The arts will play a huge role in the revitalization efforts. Greene said more than 50,000 people visited the Colby Museum of Art last year.

“We’re starting to really think about how to leverage the arts as an economic tool for the city, as one of the great assets for people to come here and experience,” he said.

Greene led an effort to revitalize areas on the south side of Chicago when he was executive vice president at University of Chicago. Like the current Waterville downtown revitalization effort, it centered on economic development.

His work to partner with the city is influenced by the fact that Waterville has supported Colby in its efforts throughout the years.

“We’ve had a symbiotic relationship for more than 200 years, and we’re going to continue that for at least another 200,” he said. “We should do all we can to make sure we both thrive in this environment. I think the more we can partner together and face whatever challenges come our way, the stronger we will be. We really are joined at the hip.”

Isgro said that since the partnership with Colby has been discussed, he goes around the city and sees a renewed sense of optimism, particularly because the city had endured some tough financial years. It’s time to “seize this moment,” he said.

“I hear people saying more and more, ‘How can I help?’ It’s an incredible optimism in the air.”

Isgro, City Manager Michael Roy, city councilors, business owners and downtown organizations including Waterville Creates! have been positive and encouraging and want to do everything they can to make the vision a reality, according to Greene.

“That’s a sign that this is a city that’s really ready to get things done,” he said.

The process has been invigorating, Isgro said.

Greene predicts the effort will draw investors to follow suit and take advantage of opportunities downtown. Waterville has a lot of hardworking people, ready to do every job that needs to be done, he said.

“If we can really get a number of things started, it will send a message to the larger market that this is the time to invest in Waterville,” he said.

MORE OPPORTUNITIES FOLLOW

Bill Mitchell, owner of GHM Insurance Agency on Main Street, took part in the downtown revitalization meetings and in the midst of discussions bought two historic buildings at 14-18 and 20-24 Common St. and is renovating them for offices, a restaurant and art-related ventures.

Restaurant owner Jobi Culver will lease space in the so-called Masonic building at 14 Common St. His restaurant is scheduled to open in December. Culver and Mitchell will host a pre-launch party at the restaurant space from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Mitchell has great hopes for the downtown renaissance.

“I think what is happening in downtown is just a great opportunity for the city of Waterville to really rejuvenate the livelihood of downtown,” Mitchell said Tuesday night. “It’s just really an exciting time.”

He cited the collaboration among Colby, the city, businesses and downtown organizations including Waterville Main Street, Waterville Creates!, Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce, Common Street Arts and others as extraordinary.

“I think that the time is right now for really good and exciting things to happen in downtown,” he said.

Mitchell and his wife, Vicki, will host a “major reception” Nov. 10 at Castonguay Square off Common Street to celebrate the downtown effort and open his new building. Colby students and staff members, downtown organizations, city officials and the public are invited to Harvest on the Square, which also will feature artists, musicians and others, he said.

“It will be catered by the Last Unicorn,” Mitchell said. “There will be artists and musicians from around the state. We’re really looking forward to a great, fun, festive event downtown to kick off what we think is a fantastic initiative to invigorate downtown.”

City Councilor Dana Bushee, D-Ward 6, also took part in downtown discussions. Her ward includes downtown.

Bushee said late Tuesday that all of the things Greene, Isgro and others have been working on are things the city has been hoping for and thinking about for a long time.

“With David (Greene’s) enthusiasm and energy and knowledge, he’s actually making the dream come true, really,” she said. “I think we’re at a turning point when it comes to not only the downtown, but really creating an image for Waterville and being a destination city.”

She said Greene, Mitchell and other visionaries will definitely make it happen — not only for the city and downtown, but for all residents.

“I think we just need people to believe in Waterville and know that things are happening, and many people in the community are working on it,” she said.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17