WATERVILLE — Busy downtowns are a vital part of any community, and the Taste of Greater Waterville didn’t disappoint Wednesday.

Thousands flocked there to eat, listen to live music, watch dancers and skateboarders perform, visit the shops and socialize with friends.

The 19-year tradition started as a way to draw people downtown to taste food from area restaurants and enjoy other amenities downtown has to offer.

Although the ideas and methods to reach that goal have changed and evolved over the years, downtown advocates continue to pursue it.

Nowhere was the discussion about how to make downtowns in general successful more prevalent than under a tent off Appleton Street early Wednesday afternoon.

There, independent licensed massage therapists Teresa Rael, Stacy Rollins and Laura Holt were offering seated massages — $5 for five minutes — to benefit suicide-prevention and breast cancer causes.

The friends, who studied their profession at Kennebec Valley Community College and got their licenses a year ago, talked about what they think downtowns need to be successful — and what they need in a downtown to make their business viable.

Rental space that is reasonably priced, downtown officials who advertise what businesses are available and more parking opportunities are critical, they said.

Rael of Winslow, Rollins of Benton and Holt of Skowhegan said they love downtown Waterville and want it to thrive. They have tossed around the idea of opening a massage therapy business together here, but they also know the challenges involved in getting the money to start, competing with other businesses, educating people about massage and building a clientele, they said.

Their recommendations for improving Waterville’s downtown to draw more people includes opening a grocery store, bakery and a shop for all of their marketing needs at reasonable prices. Rollins’ boyfriend, Jody Arno, said a parking garage downtown also is a must.

A grocery store, such as the former Shop ‘n Save on The Concourse, was convenient for older people who live at Elm Towers and other places downtown, Rael said.

“A lot of people don’t have vehicles,” she said. “They’d actually get out and walk. It would increase their mobility if they knew they could come down here and do their grocery shopping.”

Holt noted that Barrels Community Market is excellent and Rael added that Joseph’s Market on Front Street also is great.

“I certainly don’t want to put Joseph’s in jeopardy, but by the same token, it is just far enough out of the way for people to get to,” Rael said.

She said the city should avoid drawing in more big-box stores near Interstate 95. If motorists stop and shop there, they have no reason to come downtown to shop, she said.

Rael and Rollins travel to people’s homes to do massage; Holt operates out of Prime Cuts, on The Concourse.

It was the first time they had worked together at the Taste, which they hoped would help with their marketing efforts.

Mayor Dana Sennett was one of their first clients Wednesday. Sennett, who had never had a seated massage, stopped at the tent after socializing with people on Appleton Street during “the Bite,” where patrons were eating everything from lobster rolls to whoopie pies.

“The mayor is sleeping,” he crooned, while receiving his massage from Rael. “It felt so good, I didn’t want it to stop,” he said afterward.

Elsewhere downtown, Mark Larsen of Larsen’s Jewelry had stopped in at Jorgensen’s Cafe, where employees were gearing up for the evening crowd.

Larsen said the Taste is good exposure for downtown. He planned to keep his store open until about 9 p.m. or whenever the crowd thinned, he said. For the last three years, Galen Rossup of New World Gems has featured a gem show at Larsen’s during the Taste.

“He liked it so much the first year — he thought it was a great event,” Larsen said.

Jorgensen’s co-owner, Ginny Bolduc, said around 2 p.m. that business had been steady.

“We don’t notice the huge crowd ’til 5 or 6 p.m. when the bands start playing,” she said. “In the evening we’ll be busy, especially at the espresso bar and with gelato sales.”

Shoppers were taking advantage of a sidewalk sale at Maine Made & More, and the community group REM was hosting a flea market in The Forum room at The Center. Outside, Dale Patterson moved his wheelchair into the shade by Castonguay Square, which was empty except for a few people.

The Square and Common Street were not used for the Bite this year because the city had the park seeded and some plantings added.

Patterson said the spot was not as lively as in previous years. But he was looking forward nonetheless to the evening entertainment promised on Main Street — and to enjoying an evening meal.

“I’m going to have a reuben (sandwich) tonight,” he said with a smile.

Just then, a juggler on a unicycle pedaled by on Main Street, calling out to people to come to his 3 p.m. show.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

 

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