A man walks his dog past vacant buildings Thursday on Main Street in downtown Waterville. About 14 downtown buildings have vacant space, including seven that are completely empty. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

WATERVILLE — City officials and others are pushing to fill vacant store lots in downtown Waterville, whether by drawing new businesses to the city to occupy them, expanding existing businesses or retrofitting buildings to fit commercial needs.

The vacancies have been discussed at public meetings being held so residents can explain what they want to see in and around downtown over the next several years.

Mayor Jay Coelho said Thursday he thinks some of the vacancies are due to the difficulties businesses faced during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, and he believes buildings and spaces will start to fill up this year as people explore what is available.

Coelho said it is important landlords charge rents that are affordable for people in central Maine.

“If you’re looking to charge $4,000 for a 2,000-square-foot space, you’re not getting it — not in downtown Waterville,” he said.

Coelho, a partner in three businesses on the second floor of a downtown building on Common Street, said there are desirable places downtown that are perfect for businesses. He is exploring the possibility of opening a ramen noodle eatery on the west side of Main Street.


“That’s something we don’t have, and guess who likes ramen? College kids,” he said. “There are so many different kinds of noodles.”

Across the street from the Bill & Joan Alfond Main Street Commons, which houses some 200 Colby College students and staff members, two buildings owned by the DePre family at 155 and 165 Main St. remain vacant, but are targeted for a mixed-use development, according to Garvan Donegan, director of planning, innovation and economic development for the Central Maine Growth Council.

“The buildings have recently received investments, including critical infrastructure such as natural gas, which has now been extended onto the site,” Donegan wrote Thursday in an email. “The DePre team is considering a mixed-use development, which may include retail and-or commercial uses and products on the first floor(s) and potentially residential units on the remaining top floors.”

A man walks past the vacant building Thursday at 165 Main St. in downtown Waterville. The building next door, at 155 Main St., has the same owner and is also vacant. In the background: The Bill & Joan Alfond Main Street Commons, which provides housing for Colby College students and staff members. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

The two buildings represent the unique and distinct nature of buildings that have openings in the downtown district, according to Donegan.

“For example, in the instances of vacancies downtown, they are generally falling into one of two categories: Facilities that are currently in active planning and development phases with plans to launch shortly,” he said, “and properties that have been recently acquired, seen investment, and new property owners are drafting plans while reviewing development opportunities.”

Given the distinct nature of the buildings with vacant spaces, Donegan said he believes they present unique opportunities for growth and investment in the community, and represent a blank canvas for existing businesses to expand and diversify their offerings. 


“Likewise,” he said, “young to seasoned investors and developers may still acquire in the community and downtown, in contrast to areas where residents may be priced out.”

Paul Ureneck, Colby’s assistant vice president of real estate development and operations, said Thursday there are about 14 buildings downtown that have some sort of vacancy.

“There are approximately seven buildings downtown that are fully vacant,” he said, “with about seven that are partially vacant.”

Vacant buildings at 155 and 165 Main St. in downtown Waterville. Photographed on Thursday, the properties are among about 14 downtown buildings that have vacant space. City officials and others are working to fill them. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

Ureneck, who oversees Colby’s property development downtown, said a common goal of everyone who has been attending meetings to discuss downtown needs is filling existent vacancies and how to best do that.

“That’s a wide-ranging discussion,” he said. “There’s been a lot of discussion about why these properties are vacant. The most prevalent one is that the current construction costs are such that the amount of money a landlord will need to invest in these properties to make them rentable does not support these types of investments.”

Ureneck said people must find a way to bridge that gap.


“Construction costs are at an all-time high now, and you won’t get the same lease rate you get in Portland,” he said, “yet construction costs are no different than they are in Waterville.”

Justin DePre, whose family owns the properties at 155 and 165 Main St., said in a statement that the rising cost and lack of availability of construction materials during the pandemic “was a significant setback” to development plans for the two buildings.

“Our goal has always been to preserve the historical character of both buildings, and we have worked diligently to maintain them,” DePre said.

The properties are seeing renewed interest from prospective commercial tenants, DePre said, adding that he hopes to resume the redevelopment of the buildings this year.

It is important, Ureneck said, for the public to attend the group discussions and provide direction to the city so officials can prioritize the needs of the downtown district. He said the next group discussion is scheduled for March 30 at Spectrum Generations’ Muskie Community Center at 38 Gold St.

Donegan and others project there will be continued and increased investment this year in housing and mixed-use developments, the creative economy and entrepreneurship.

“The trend of returning to Main Street is expected to continue, and we anticipate more businesses entering or expanding in the downtown area,” he said.

Over about the past three years, including at the height of the pandemic, about 15 businesses have opened or expanded in downtown Waterville, according to Donegan.

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