WATERVILLE — The City Council voted 6-0 Tuesday to authorize City Manager Michael Roy to start negotiating with Colby College to sell city-owned land on The Concourse so Colby can build a student dormitory there.

The unanimous vote followed a lengthy discussion among councilors, Roy, Mayor Nick Isgro and area residents and business owners about what would happen with traffic, parking and other issues with the loss of parking spaces and having 150 to 200 students living downtown.

The council also voted 6-0 Tuesday to spend up to $35,000 to hire a traffic consultant to study downtown traffic and parking issues. Colby and the state Department of Transportation would share equally in the cost for the study.

Isgro explained that the study will look at not only parking and the effect of having more people downtown, but also how traffic flow may be improved. Looking at possibly having two-way traffic on Main and Front streets downtown would be part of that study. Traffic flowed two ways many years ago on Main and Front. Isgro told those who had questions that he appreciated their concerns.

“In order for this project to even happen, we necessarily have to have those answers,” he said.

Colby has bought several vacant, dilapidated buildings downtown with a plan to work with investors to renovate them. Colby officials said they hope to create a boutique hotel and retail businesses, as well as faculty and student housing.

The three-quarter-acre section of The Concourse that Colby wants to buy is bordered by Main, Temple and Appleton streets and is the site of the Waterville Downtown Farmers Market in the summer. That market operates at the Thayer Center for Health in the winter.

Susan Giguere, founder and chief executive officer of Care & Comfort at the corner of Appleton and Main, said the idea of having Colby downtown is exciting, but she had some concerns about the plan. Her business, which employs 600-plus people from here to Presque Isle, is across the street from the lot Colby wants to buy.

Her business provides about 25 parking spaces for its employees, but at least 25 more employees need parking spaces during a normal workday, and more when visitors come to the office, she said. When the farmers market is open on Thursdays, employees notice a parking crunch. Main and Appleton is a busy intersection, and winter, with slippery streets and sidewalks, creates safety challenges, she said.

Isgro told Giguere she had a lot of valid points. He said one idea that had been discussed during talks with Colby about downtown revitalization is providing a shuttle service from downtown to the Colby campus on Mayflower Hill and requiring students to park their vehicles on campus. Again, he said the traffic study would address questions about parking and other issues.

“With the study, by June, July, we should have the answers, …” he said.

Roy said previous studies by downtown planning experts recommended Waterville do several things to improve downtown, and the first priority was to fill the gap on Main Street where businesses were removed during urban renewal in the 1960s — and where Colby wants to build the dormitory. The second recommendation was to improve the intersection at Main, Spring and Water streets to make pedestrian passage to the Hathaway Creative Center better and the third was to look at reinstating two-way traffic downtown.

He noted that the city’s zoning would require the first floor of a dormitory on Main Street to be commercial or retail. Councilor Dana Bushee, D-Ward 6, who served on a committee last year with Roy, Isgro, Colby President David Greene and others, said officials discussed having both faculty members and students living in the complex and requiring the students to apply to live downtown and to be involved in a community service component, working with downtown nonprofits and organizations. Councilor Steve Soule, D-Ward 1, said when he was working in education — as a school principal — Colby students worked in his school. As director of the South End Teen Center, Soule said Colby students are involved there as well.

“It’s a tremendous asset to the programs,” he said.

Councilor Nathaniel White, D-Ward 2, said communities want people to park and walk on Main Street, eat in restaurants, shop and go to a show. If the dormitory is built and retail is on the first floor, people will go there and pedestrian activity will increase on the street.

“I think the time is right,” he said. “I love going out to eat on Main Street and go out to a show, and I think this would be a fantastic opportunity for Waterville.”

Councilor Jackie Dupont, D-Ward 7, said when she was a Colby student, the focus was living on campus and it was not until she became involved in city activities through service learning projects that she became connected to the city. She ultimately graduated from Colby, bought a house in the city instead of moving back to her home state, became a member of the Planning Board, is South End Neighborhood Association chairman and serves on other boards.

“It’s not just like economic investment. It’s investing in people,”Dupont said. “It feels good.”

Bill Mitchell, owner of GHM Insurance Agency downtown, also attended the committee meetings with Colby officials and bought historic buildings on Common Street with plans to renovate them and have offices, arts venues and other entities there.

Mitchell said he also had questions about all the issues people raised Tuesday, but he is confident they will be resolved and that the efforts will result in a vibrant, exciting downtown.

“I’m just very excited to be a part of it,” he said.

Charlie Giguere, president of Waterville Main Street, which administers the farmers market, said earlier Tuesday that his board has not taken an official position on the proposal to create student housing downtown but is excited about all that Colby is doing downtown. If a decision is made to sell the space to Colby and the farmers market is displaced, Waterville Main Street will help find an alternative for the market, according to Giguere.

“The farmers market is one of Main Street’s finest weekly events in the summer,” he said. “We’d be committed to helping them find a suitable location. I find it difficult to believe that anyone on the Waterville Main Street board would be averse to having an increased student population downtown.”

Hanne Tierney, who with her husband, Dan, owns Cornerstone Farm in Palmyra and sells at the farmers market, said it is disappointing that that area of The Concourse may be sold.

“I think that, really, that location is a perfect location for the farmers market, and they considered moving it last year, and we came to some negotiations to not move,” Tierney said late Tuesday afternoon, before the council meeting. “It’s definitely disappointing, and I hope that the city works with us to help us relocate is this sale happens.”

In prior discussions about moving the market, officials talked about Head of Falls, on the Kennebec River off Front Street, as a possible location; but Tierney said she does not think that is a good idea. While some people consider Head of Falls as part of downtown, Tierney does not. She said visibility and accessibility are important to the success of a farmers market and having it on Main Street is a benefit.

Also, she said, she worries about safety at Head of Falls, as vendors are there after dusk and it is out of the way. But she noted that Colby and the city always have been supportive of the market in the past and she hopes that if the sale occurs, both entities will help the farmers market find a another visible, safe and accessible location.

Tierney, who is market manager at the farmers market as well as chairman of the Maine Federation of Farmers Markets, attended Tuesday night’s meeting and asked if the farmers market could remain on The Concourse next summer if the lot is sold, as it is very important that vendors be able to tell their patrons about changes in plans.

“We just cross our fingers that you guys remember us, and we would really like to stay downtown,” she told city officials and councilors. “It is very important to the farmers market.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17


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