WATERVILLE — Downtown advocates packed the council chambers Tuesday to urge city councilors to continue funding Waterville Main Street to the tune of $40,000 a year, in light of recent remarks by councilors that the city might trim or eliminate support to that organization.

Waterville Main Street organizes the annual Parade of Lights, which brings 8,000 people to the city the day after Thanksgiving; hosts Kringleville, which draws around 2,000 children to visit Santa Claus; sponsors the Waterville Downtown Farmers Market; and supports and The Maine Open Juried Art Show and Harvest Fest, which includes Festival at the Falls.

Buffy Higgins, vice president of the Waterville Main Street board of directors, said she understood some city officials discussed the idea of not funding Waterville Main Street as a way to help balance a challenging municipal budget.

“I’m here to help you understand why I think that’s a bad idea,” she said.

The money for Waterville Main Street comes from the downtown tax increment financing district account and is intended for general economic development, business growth and expansion and housing revitalization downtown, she said.

For every $1 invested in Waterville Main Street, $24.10 is pumped into downtown, according to Higgins. Waterville Main Street, she said, is a nationally accredited designation that meets 10 standards of performance that only nine other communities in Maine have.

“And believe me, there’s a waiting list to get on it,” she said. “Waterville Main Street is going through a transition, it’s a time of assessment and redefinition.”

She said that while the organization’s executive director resigned several months ago, Waterville Main Street plans to hire a new one and can continue its work only with the city’s funding.

Colby College gives Waterville Main Street $30,000 annually, and Colby officials said the college will continue to support it only if the city does, she said.

Charlie Giguere, president of the Waterville Main Street Board, said he has been meeting with Colby officials about downtown revitalization efforts and plans and everyone is fired up about what is happening. Waterville Main Street, he said, intends to act as a facilitator for and manage grants for projects such as building facades downtown.

“The vision that is being created for Waterville, every other city in Maine is going to be jealous,” he said. “I think now is the wrong time to pull the plug.”

Giguere said the paradigm for Main Street organizations is to garner funding from three sources, with one-third of funding coming from the municipality, a third from colleges and institutions and a third from businesses. He said he thinks Waterville Main Street needs to evaluate the smaller things it does, such as an email newsletter and downtown quarterly publication, which take time, and focus on its vision. He said he knows there is work to do, but the city’s funding is critical.

“Without your funding, it all disappears,” he said.

City Councilor Jackie Dupont, D-Ward 7, asked when Waterville Main Street expects to hire a new executive director.

“As soon as you say yes, you’re going to keep us in your budget,” Giguere replied.

In response to a question from City Councilor Steve Soule, D-Ward 1, about how much money is leveraged for every dollar given to Waterville Main Street, Giguere said when a child comes to Waterville to visit Santa Claus at Kringleville, for instance, that is not all the child and his family do.

“Twenty-four retail dollars get spent,” he said.

If an event is occurring at the Waterville Opera House or the Parade of Lights is going on, Giguere sees a 30 or 40 percent increase in retail dollars at his business, Silver Street Tavern, and people come into the city from everywhere — not just Waterville, he said.

Bill Mitchell, owner of GHM Insurance Agency on Main Street, said he thinks the city is on the cusp of something big, with Colby and the city’s revitalization plans. Millions of dollars are going to be invested in downtown, he said, urging the council to continue to fund Waterville Main Street. He said the organization, and Giguere, do a great job.

“With all that we’re about to do in our downtown, to not have a downtown business association in what I think will be the greatest reinvigoration of Waterville’s downtown … I strongly urge you find a way, figure it out, keep them in the budget,” Mitchell said.

His comment drew applause from the audience, which included Kimberly Lindlof, president and chief executive officer of the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce. Lindlof said if funding is cut to Waterville Main Street, the chamber will not pick up the programs and activities Main Street does.

City Manager Michael Roy said councilors have tough decisions to make in the budget this year and are looking at having to increase the tax rate. The city once had a surplus of $10 million and it is now under $6 million, he said. The city is not able to fix roads or buy equipment except by borrowing money, and now the debt service for three bonds is catching up with the city, he said. The budget situation, he said, is a serious as it could possibly be.

“I, frankly, don’t know how we’re going to keep our tax rate from (preventing) people wanting to move out,” he said.

Amy Cyrway, who owns The Framemakers downtown with her husband, Brian, and is the president of Waterville Area Art Society, said Waterville Main Street helped her and her husband maneuver a difficult process to buy their business, and helps bring the Maine Open Juried Art Show to the Waterville Public Library annually.

“We had 96 artists come to us from all over the state,” she said. “That is a huge show for Waterville, for the state of Maine, and it is open to the public. The thing is, we wouldn’t have been able to do that without Waterville Main Street.”

Mitchell bought two historic buildings on Common Street as part of revitalization efforts. He said that from his own experience in Waterville, he thinks the city is pro-business and he talks about city officials and what they do all the time and about how well they work together. He said he also understands the city is in a tight spot, but urged councilors to continue to fund Waterville Main Street.

“If you guys cut Waterville Main Street, I’ll tell you, it’s just not going to come across as pro-business,” he said.

Councilors emphasized that they have not made a decision on the funding and just needed to ask questions about what Waterville Main Street does and how it uses the city’s funding.

Ellen Richmond, owner of the Children’s Book Cellar on Main Street, said businesses work together and support each other, and they need the city’s support.

“There’s a lot of stuff done quietly and behind the scenes, business-to-business,” she said. “There’s a real collegiality on Main Street, which I think has been brought about as a result of Waterville Main Street.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247

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Twitter: @AmyCalder17