WATERVILLE — When the Waterville Main Street program started 17 years ago, many downtown business spaces were vacant and the city needed a boost.

The nonprofit program, whose mission was to help transform downtown into a thriving and energetic destination spot with commercial, social, cultural and entertainment offerings, was one of four inaugural Main Street communities in the state. Now it is at an end, but not without leaving a legacy that will be carried on by others.

As Waterville now is in the midst of a multi-million dollar downtown revitalization effort headed up by Colby College and the city, important programs started and/or supported by Waterville Main Street continue because its board of directors made sure those most meaningful to the downtown and community were preserved and taken over by other organizations before the Main Street program dissolved.

Charlie Giguere, the latest president of the Waterville Main Street board of directors, and Buffy Higgins, vice president, not only found suitable entities to take over the programs, but also distributed about $60,000 in leftover funds from Waterville Main Street to causes including the RiverWalk being built at Head of Falls.

“After all was said and done, we ended up giving the RiverWalk $18,000,” Giguere said. “We wrote a check to the city of Waterville/RiverWalk.”

Giguere and Higgins said the donation aligned nicely with Main Street’s tradition of supporting the downtown, as well as green, healthful initiatives there. Members of Main Street’s board of directors voted unanimously to give the money to the RiverWalk.

“Everything was focused around the downtown,” Higgins said.

Jeff Zimmerman headed the downtown program in 2001 and Shannon Haines became executive director in 2003 as part of a job share with Joan Phillips-Sandy, who then was assistant director. Two years later, Haines became the full-time director and remained until 2012.

During her tenure, Waterville Main Street played an important role in bringing the community together and providing a sense of hope and momentum at a time when vacancy rates downtown were well above 50 percent.

“A number of Waterville Main Street initiatives and projects continue to have a lasting impact, including the Downtown Waterville Farmers’ Market, the Silver Street outdoor dining patio, the downtown flower box program, the Converge & Create branding process, and the Lebanese Heritage mural,” said Haines, now the president and chief executive officer of Waterville Creates!

Haines was asked Friday to reflect on Waterville Main Street, which now is defunct in Waterville, but in its heyday was a critical entity that launched numerous programs.

“Common Street Arts, which is now a program of Waterville Creates!, was actually started under Waterville Main Street with funding from the Maine Arts Commission’s Creative Communities = Economic Development grant program and has grown into a vibrant, active arts exhibition and education space that serves thousands of youth and adults in the heart of downtown,” Haines said. “What I enjoyed most about the work of Waterville Main Street was the way in which it invited a diverse group of community members to contribute their ideas and their talents to downtown revitalization efforts.”

While Haines was at the helm of Waterville Main Street, the city saw the redevelopment of the former C.F. Hathaway Co. shirt factory, major investments from both Inland Hospital and MaineGeneral Health in establishing downtown medical offices, and the community’s support of Waterville Opera House and the Waterville Public Library renovation projects. Those projects and the community’s support of them were instrumental in Waterville’s revitalization, according to Haines.

‘IT SERVED ITS PURPOSE’

Higgins and Giguere met recently with Anne Ball, program director for the Maine Downtown Center, which is part of the Maine Development Foundation and oversees Main Street programs.

“They wanted to do a debriefing — an exit interview — to talk about lessons learned and other issues,” Higgins said.

Ball said Friday that in that meeting, she commended Giguere, Higgins and other Main Street volunteers for the great job the organization did with the downtown and for passing unique programs on to other organizations, often with incentives. She said she wants everyone in the city who believed or perhaps did not believe in Main Street to realize the legacy it left.

“You have to credit them with a great deal of what is happening now,” Ball said. “Downtown is changing and on the move.”

There are 10 Main Street organizations in Maine which have been in existence for a number of years and they all go through ebbs and flows of high-functioning, as other organizations do, Ball said. What Waterville Main Street has done will have a lasting impact on the city, said Ball, who said the program helped to relocate the farmers market from The Concourse to Common Street and gave money to the RiverWalk, which will benefit people for a long time to come.

“The Main Street programs are grounded in a three-legged stool. They have to have participation, as well as financial resources from residents, local businesses and municipalities, and there’s no question when that gets out of sync, organizations can’t sustain themselves,” she said.

She said some Main Street programs can go on forever as there is always more work to do.

“In the future, Waterville could come back and apply for the National Main Street Program,” she said. “Buffy and Charlie put their heart and soul into it, along with a lot of other volunteers.”

By the time Giguere and Higgins met with Ball, they had already handed over the flower box program to the community group REM; the farmers market, which is sponsored by MaineGeneral Health, to the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce; and Kringleville and the Parade of Lights to the Children’s Discovery Museum.

“That was the big one,” Giguere said. “We approached Amarinda Keys at the Children’s Museum and had a meeting with her to take the event over and offered her incentives to do it. We offered to pay Tracy O’Clair, interim executive director of Main Street, $5,000, and offered to fix Santa’s House, which cost $5,000, and $5,000 was donated to the Children’s Museum. They did a great job with Tracy.”

Because Harvest Fest was so weather dependent and could not be held if it was cold and rainy, Main Street officials decided it was not worth continuing. They tried to hand it off to an organization and offered some funding to go with it, but they were not successful.

When Haines left Waterville Main Street in 2012, Jennifer Olsen became executive director. In December 2015 Olsen stepped down and Main Street’s office manager, June L’Heureux, managed the day-to-day operations at Main Street’s office downtown.

Waterville Main Street’s closure occurred slowly over time. Due to several issues, including loss of state revenue sharing and other budget constraints, the city decreased its funding to Main Street and it became apparent it would likely discontinue funding it all together.

Meanwhile, as downtown revitalization efforts started, Waterville Main Street hung in there.

“We’ve been struggling for a long time,” Giguere said. “It served its purpose during its time. Luckily, we had enough money in the bank to walk the programs and find the suitors for the programs, find the good fit. We’re actually quite happy with how we paired things up.”

Giguere and Higgins say the Chamber of Commerce, Waterville Creates! and other organizations are strong, as are Colby initiatives, so they are confident the former Main Street programs will survive.

Higgins noted that many Main Street volunteers put in a lot of hours over the years to help the downtown.

“Hopefully, they can look back and say it was worth all their time and energy and hopefully they are proud,” she said.

Those volunteers helped to make a difference, according to Giguere.

“We hope that, with all the programs and events that we’ve saved or handed off, we left a lasting impression,” he said.

LOSS OF FUNDING

In order to be designated a Main Street program in the first place, it was required to have part of its funding come from the city, which decreased its annual donation from $40,000 to $30,000 in 2016. At the time, Colby College agreed to match the city’s contribution and merchants also donated, as did Thomas College, Inland Hospital and MaineGeneral Health — Main Street’s major partners. Main Street also got money from grants, promotions and events.

It had operated on an annual budget of about $120,000. It established a historical tax district downtown that enabled businesses to do historical renovation projects, securing more than $1 million in grant revenue on behalf of the city, and launched facade and forgivable loan programs.

Many say it paved the way for what is happening downtown now, with Colby building a $25 million mixed-use residential complex on Main Street where some 200 students, staff and faculty will live starting in August. Colby also renovated 173 Main St. into offices with Portland Pie Co. and Money Cat Fried Chicken and Donuts to open in the near future on the ground floor.

Colby purchased a building on Main Street that houses Camden National Bank and plans to demolish that to build a boutique hotel. Meanwhile, Camden plans to open in the ground floor of the dormitory.

Further, Colby and Waterville Creates! are raising millions of dollars to transform The Center on Main Street into a center for the arts and cinema.

Giguere himself has been part of downtown revitalization efforts. The owner of Silver Street Tavern, as well as office and residential properties, he also owns the building at 137 Main St. that houses Amici’s Cucina and leases apartments on upper floors.

In 2014 he completed a nearly two-year project to renovate offices and apartments on the second and third floors above Silver Street Tavern and those spaces are fully occupied.

Three years before that, he transformed the second, third and fourth floors of 28 Main St. into high-end apartments. The building shares a wall with his 2 Silver St. building where the tavern is located. He has served on local boards and committees many years.

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

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