WATERVILLE — Efforts to draw businesses to the city’s waterfront apparently are in limbo, as Mayor Karen Heck and other city officials are focusing instead on filling vacant buildings and supporting existing businesses.

“It seems to me we have a lot of opportunity to really make a difference in Waterville,” Heck said last week. “We have great bones in the city. Why aren’t we building on those bones rather than building new buildings?”

As recently as three years ago, city officials were trying to market Head of Falls, following up on a consultant’s recommendation that the 12-acre site between Front Street and the Kennebec River would be a good location for restaurants, shopping areas, commercial and office space, open green areas and public gathering spots.

Several years ago, the city invested $1.5 million in the waterfront, installing underground utilities including sewer, water and electricity there with the idea that if it were site-ready, businesses would be more likely to build there.

That project also included The Two-Cent Plaza, which includes a park, information kiosk, lights and benches and improvements made to the Two-Cent Bridge.

Heck, interviewed about downtown development last week by the Morning Sentinel, said the city should be putting all its efforts into supporting existing businesses, such as the Hathaway Creative Center. The city also should help Hathaway owner Paul Boghossian to develop the two adjacent buildings that housed Marden’s Surplus & Salvage and Central Maine Power Co., she said.

When Heck took office in 2012, the Waterville Development Corp., which was charged with developing the waterfront, had just issued requests for proposals from businesses to see if there was interest in Head of Falls.

“No one even responded,” she said.

Heck said she put together a subcommittee to discuss options.

“We came up with two areas of focus that would be much more productive than trying to market Head of Falls, which is a beautiful space,” she said.

The subcommittee went back to the development corporation with the recommendation to focus on existing buildings and businesses, instead of Head of Falls, she said.

Waterfront is just not a priority, she said.

Heck said the airport became a focus. The city bought 62 acres near the airport and made improvements to the facility; officials also looked at finding uses for empty buildings, including the former Levine’s store, which has since been purchased and is being renovated.

The vacant Hains building at the corner of Appleton and Main streets has drawn interest from prospective buyers, she said. Someone also is interested in producing hay logs in the former Harris Baking Co. building, tucked between Sanger, Harris and North streets.

City Manager Michael Roy said the city has a contract with the development group to market and advertise Head of Falls on behalf of the city.

Roy said he assumes city councilors are OK with the focus on empty and existing buildings as opposed to developing Head of Falls, as no one has questioned that direction.

“My continuing concern is the amount of infrastructure investment the city has made at Head of Falls, and do we intend to take advantage of that or not,” Roy said.

As part of the riverfront improvements, the city borrowed $1.25 million and used a state grant to install underground utilities, build the plaza and repair the bridge, he said.

“We’ve spent over $1.5 million on the waterfront for everything so far,” he said.

Waterville Development Corp. member Douglas Cutchin, who was its first president, said Head of Falls has great potential for development.

“Obviously, different people have different priorities that they want to focus on,” he said.

Like Roy, Cutchin pointed to the amount of money spent and the improvements made on the waterfront so far, with the underground utility placement aimed at drawing development.

“Obviously, it’s a major investment taxpayers made and at some point, we should put a concentrated effort back on it,” Cutchin said. “It’s still in our portfolio; it hasn’t been taken out. It’s just been put on the back burner right now.”

City Council Chairman Erik Thomas, Ward 4, said empty spaces at FirstPark, Airport Industrial Park and on College Avenue could use some attention instead of the open space at Head of Falls.

“I just don’t see why we would want to build on the last green space we have downtown,” he said.

He said if a business wanted to locate at Head of Falls and provide jobs, he would recommend that it first explore the Hathaway building on Water Street.

He said he sees more value in green space at Head of Falls than for buildings. There’s no reason, he said, that Head of Falls couldn’t be similar to Bangor’s waterfront, which hosts outdoor concerts.

The city at one point considered putting a new police station at Head of Falls, but Thomas argued that Colby Circle was a better site. Police plan to move in July to their new station at Colby Circle.

Amy Calder — 861-9247
[email protected]

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