WATERVILLE — Bill Mitchell stood among about 150 people in Castonguay Square next to City Hall on Tuesday reflecting on what the Paul J. Schupf Art Center will mean to the city.

“I’m thinking it’ll have tremendous positive impact on the overall downtown experience,” Mitchell said. “And through that, I feel that businesses will benefit from the added traffic flow and pedestrian flow that will come from a new museum and relocation of an outstanding theater, complementing the great work that the Waterville Opera House does.”

Mitchell, who owns GHM Agency, The Proper Pig restaurant downtown and other properties in the city, was about to witness the installation of the final beam to be placed on the Schupf Center. Many who came for the “topping out” ceremony signed the beam before it was hoisted atop the framework of the building, a small evergreen tree attached.

A beam is signed Tuesday before it is lifted into place during a topping off ceremony for the Paul J. Schupf Art Center in downtown Waterville. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

Colby College and Waterville Creates raised $18 million for the center, which will feature an all-glass front-facing Castonguay Square and include the Joan Dignam Schmaltz Gallery of Art, Ticonic Gallery and Studios and the Ed Harris Box Office, which will serve all programs in the building, as well as the Waterville Opera House. The Opera House will be accessible to the art center via a skywalk. Three cinemas on the second floor will replace those currently at Railroad Square and will be the focal point for the Maine Film Center and the Maine International Film Festival.

Colby President David A. Greene said in a welcome speech that the art center is possible through partnerships with the city, the Harold Alfond Foundation, Waterville Creates and others.

“So many people stepped up,” Greene said.

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He spoke of Schupf, a lover of art, Colby and Waterville, who died two years ago but gave a significant gift that made building the center possible. Schupf did not want the amount of his gift disclosed.

Shannon Haines, president and CEO of Waterville Creates, speaks during a ceremony Tuesday marking progress in the construction of the Paul J. Schupf Art Center in downtown Waterville. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

Greene said Schupf, who lived in upstate New York but considered Waterville and Colby his home, would have been filled with pride Tuesday.

“Today my heart is with Paul and everything he’s done for Colby, and everything he’s done for this city,” he said.

More than $200 million in investments are being made downtown, including projects Colby has completed such as the $25 million Bill & Joan Alfond Main Street Commons, the $26 million Lockwood Hotel, $6 million Arts Collaborative and the $5 million former Waterville Savings Bank renovation.

The city’s $11.2 million downtown BUILD project to be completed late next year will change the traffic pattern on Front and Main streets to two-way and improve intersections and sidewalks and include new landscaping. The work prompted other business owners, including Mitchell, to buy and invest in downtown buildings.

Greene noted that 20 to 25 new businesses opened on Main Street in the last few years and commercial property sales have increased.

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“It’s really exciting to see this and to walk into new places and see them thriving right now,” he said.

City Manager Steve Daly, who has been on the job for 11 months, described the city’s renaissance as “simply amazing.”

“In my experience, I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said.

Community support for the center has been inspiring, according to Waterville Creates president and CEO Shannon Haines, who said 240 gifts from the community total more than $1 million.

“This building, the Paul J. Schupf Art Center, is the culmination of years and years and years of collaboration and it’s so exciting to see it take shape before our very eyes,” Haines said.

Before the speeches, Silver Street Tavern owner Charlie Giguere milled about, chatting with people about what the center will bring to the area.

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“This will have a mega-impact on everybody’s business,” Giguere said. “I never thought I’d say this, but we don’t have enough restaurant seats downtown. This is going to put more pressure on more development for restaurants.”

Giguere, a Waterville native, marveled at the changes that have occurred downtown.

“It’s just amazing, for a kid who grew up three blocks away from here in blue-collar era Scott Paper Co., Hathaway … and to see this new energy going into non-blue collar things, especially the arts, is just fantastic.”

Workers swing a beam into place Tuesday for installation during a topping off ceremony of the Paul J. Schupf Art Center in downtown Waterville. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

State Rep. Bruce White, D-Waterville, a member of the city’s Planning Board, remembered how devastating times were in Waterville more than 20 years ago when businesses, including C.F. Hathaway & Co., closed. He lost his longtime job when Kimberly-Clark closed and he had to go back to school in his 40s to learn a new career, he said.

“It was a rough time, and to see this it’s just so exciting,” he said.

Waterville Opera House Director Michelle Sweet said the new center will give more visibility to the Opera House from Main Street as the building that formerly was on the site blocked that view. The Opera House’s offices will be located on the lower level of the new center.

“The shared box office is one of the things I’m most excited about, to really bring us together as an organization,” she said.

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