WATERVILLE — Residents and officials gathered Saturday afternoon to dedicate the city’s new RiverWalk at Head of Falls along the Kennebec River, with help from former U.S. Sen. and Waterville native George Mitchell.

“If you fell off our back porch, you fell into the Kennebec River,” said Mitchell, 85, whose family lived at Head of Falls when he was a young boy. “Nowadays, real estate next to rivers and lakes is identified as prime real estate. Back then, it was just the opposite.” Mitchell and other speakers made reference to the industrial history of the Head of Falls area, which once was home to the Wyandotte Mill.

The RiverWalk event, held in the new 150-seat amphitheater built as part of the $1.5 million project, marked the culmination of years of work and planning. The RiverWalk first opened to the public several weeks ago.

“Waterville is on the move, and Waterville’s return to the river is a huge part of it,” said City Manager Michael Roy, who helped lead the city’s RiverWalk Advisory Committee.

Designed by Mitchell & Associates of Portland, the RiverWalk features a 900-foot boardwalk winding along the Kennebec River. The project, located off of Front Street, also includes a children’s play area, benches, picnic tables, a gazebo, artwork, and signs explaining the city’s history on the river.

Roy said the Head of Falls redevelopment had been on his mind since he started as manager 14 years ago and found it “so sad that such a beautiful and historical part of the city was in such bad shape.” He credited a 2015 effort from the Waterville Rotary Club, which sought to identify and sponsor a project in recognition of the club’s centennial, for injecting momentum into the RiverWalk project.

“Believe me when I say that Waterville is experiencing a renaissance,” Roy told the crowd Saturday.

Lisa Hallee, who co-chaired the RiverWalk committee with Roy, outlined how her grandfather came to Waterville from Quebec looking for a mill job as a teenager. He found one at Head of Falls, married her grandmother and started a family.

“My family’s story is not unique. It is the story of Head of Falls, it is the story of Waterville, and indeed, it is the story of America,” Hallee said. “Hardworking people came here to find a better life, for themselves and their families. We celebrate this heritage with this park.”

She also noted that Native Americans had called the Head of Falls area home for centuries and said that “we honor their history as well.”

Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro called the RiverWalk “a phenomenal project” after the ceremony, and said it is a symbol of the city’s revival.

“I hope we’re just getting started,” Isgro added, saying the project “shows the momentum that we have at our backs.”

The RiverWalk was made possible through donations from various businesses, organizations, individuals and families. Roy said that as of Saturday afternoon, the fundraising effort is $16,000 away from hitting its $1.5 million goal.

The Waterville Rotary Club in 2015 gave the lead gift of $150,000 for the RiverWalk project as a way of celebrating the club’s centennial. The city raised $300,000 locally — including $50,000 from the Waterville Development Corp. — to match a $300,000 grant from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Kennebec Savings Bank donated $150,000 and Mitchell and his family members donated $100,000. Other donations include $75,000 from Colby College, $15,000 from Kennebec Messalonskee Trails and $10,000 from Inland Hospital.

As part of the push to finish the fundraising campaign, people had the option of purchasing engraved pavers for $400 to be placed on the walkway, bearing their names or the names of loved ones.

The RiverWalk’s gazebo is named for the Mitchell family, in recognition of the $100,000 donation from Mitchell, sister Barbara Mitchell Atkins, brother John Mitchell and their families.

“This is very meaningful — emotional for me, because I grew up here,” George Mitchell said after the ceremony. During his speech, he called it “a very bittersweet moment.” His older brothers John and Paul both died earlier this year.

The former Senate majority leader said the Waterville side of the river now looks nothing like it did when he lived along its banks or when had a summer job during college at the paper mill across the water in Winslow.

“This is completely different. This was an old, huge textile mill that spewed hundreds of millions of gallons of pollution into the river in the course of many years,” Mitchell said. “This was a stinking, open sewer covered with foam.”

Mitchell said he was honored to be part of the ceremony Saturday recognizing the changes.

“There’s nothing in the world I’d rather be doing today than being right here in Waterville,” Mitchell said. “This is where we grew up. This is why my parents shaped me and my sister and my brothers. Everything I am, everything I have done, I owe to my parents, the community in which we lived and grew, and where we acquired the values that have guided us throughout our lives.”

While the RiverWalk has been open for several weeks, workers have continued with finishing touches, including installing 11 benches and five picnic tables earlier this week.

Hallee said the site is “already becoming part of the fabric of the community” and that a new organization, the Friends if RiverWalk, is forming to “keep this place as special as it is now” and is looking for volunteers.

Waterville native Sandra Gurney Turner said she it excited to bring her grandchildren down to Head of Falls for picnics now that the RiverWalk is complete.

“This is just so amazingly beautiful,” she said.

Morning Sentinel reporter Amy Calder contributed to this report.

 

Matt Junker — 861-9253

[email protected]

Twitter: @mattjunker

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