Waterville officials, real estate developers work to fill vacant buildings, upper floors in


Waterville City Manager Bryan Kaenrath stands Thursday in front of the Arnold Block building along the 100 block of Main Street in Waterville. Housing is being proposed for the second and third floors of the building. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

WATERVILLE — Real estate developer Bill Mitchell follows a formula when seeking the right space for potential tenants, both in his downtown buildings and those outside the city center.

He asks a lot of questions to understand what they are looking for regarding location, square footage, whether they want first, second or third floor space and what they need for parking. He also asks about their business experience, if they are a business.

If he doesn’t have exactly what they are looking for, he searches for properties for sale that would fit their needs. That is what he did for Coastal Med Tech, a durable medical goods company that the national, publicly traded company Quipt bought a few years ago. CMT started out as a small business on College Avenue and when it outgrew its space, it moved to Kennedy Memorial Drive in Oakland and then outgrew that space as well. The local store manager called Mitchell to see what he might have available in the area.

Mitchell searched the market and found that 177 College Ave., which most recently housed Grass Eaters, was for sale. He negotiated with the seller of the building to buy it and with CMT, on a lease. In this case, CMT wanted Mitchell to do the building renovations, which he did. CMT moved in last summer, after what Mitchell  calls a “complicated project that ended in a positive way.”

“It’s a win-win all around, including for College Avenue,” he said. “Having a nice retail operation with professional services is a really positive step for College Avenue.”

Now, Mitchell and City Manager Bryan Kaenrath say there are great areas available on second and third floors of downtown buildings that could be turned into housing or offices, and several first-floor retail spaces are available. Kaenrath said experts determined there are enough spaces on upper floors alone for about 75 housing units.

The challenge is that many of the buildings were built without elevators and sprinkler systems, and the city is working to help identify funding sources such as rehabilitation grants and loans to help provide such life-safety needs.

“There’s a lot of work to do,” Kaenrath said, “but there are good things happening.”

Mitchell’s formula for drawing and retaining businesses and housing tenants has been successful over his 40 years in business, the latest 23 in real estate development. The former owner of GHM Insurance, now Allen Insurance Agency, on Main Street downtown, Mitchell owns 14 properties in the city and 22 buildings. He has a high occupancy rate in those buildings — 88-90%, he says.

Developer Bill Mitchell is shown April 6 at The Elm on College Avenue in Waterville. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

“That’s one of the reasons I’ve been successful in 23 years as a real estate developer,” he said. “Every tenant has different needs.”

Mitchell is a mover and shaker when it comes to championing the city’s efforts to fill vacant spaces in buildings, particularly in the downtown.

Kaenrath cites several housing projects planned for downtown, including Head of Falls Village at the corner of Temple and Front streets, The Lockwood Mill project on Water Street and smaller projects by the Nale and DePre families at 103-09 and 155-165 Main St, respectively. Manor Gardens on College Avenue also is a major housing project.

Housing is planned on the second and third floors of buildings on the 100 block of Main Street, known also as the Arnold Block.

Creating a more vibrant downtown and continuing the momentum of revitalization efforts to date requires a multi-pronged approach, according to Kaenrath, who says developing housing on upper floors, bringing in new development, launching a branding and marketing campaign to spread awareness and seeking rehabilitation grants and loans are part of that. With more people working from home, creating housing is critical because having more people downtown means they will shop, dine and recreate there. The city recently hired Michael Hall as a community development specialist to work on various issues, including filling spaces on upper floors downtown.

Waterville City Manager Bryan Kaenrath stands on Thursday in front of partially vacant downtown buildings that are being eyed for new housing. The buildings, along the 100 block of Main Street, would have housing units on the second and third floors. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

In 2024, the city plans to work on helping create an art walk from Castonguay Square to Temple Street and more pedestrian-friendly spaces on Silver and Appleton streets.

“We hope ’24 is a big year,” Kaenrath said. “We’re going to try to accomplish as much as possible.”

RESIDENTIAL FOOT TRAFFIC

In the last several months, first-floor spaces downtown have become occupied by new businesses including Main Street Provisions, Baking With Danielle on Temple Street and MetaMorph Jewelry Studio at 40 Main St.

“I think we should feel good about that,” Kaenrath said. “I think that the more we have success with residential foot traffic downtown, the more it will be a boon for retail.”

Don Plourde, a real estate broker and developer who owns Coldwell Banker Plourde Real Estate on Silver Street, also has joined the effort to provide housing and office space downtown. After purchasing the former KFS bank building at 70 Main St. when the bank merged with Kennebec Federal Savings farther north on Main, Plourde transformed part of the third floor into a large penthouse that overlooks Main Street to the East and The Concourse to the southwest. The first floor is home to Holy Cannoli.

“We wanted a kind of high-end rental to try to bring people downtown,” Plourde said Friday during a tour of the penthouse.

Developer Don Plourde stands Friday in the renovated third floor of the Holy Cannoli building in downtown Waterville. Amy Calder/Morning Sentinel

He has been renting it out as an Airbnb until he gets a permanent tenant, and it has been very popular, he said.

Recently, some Colby College parents stayed there, loved it and want to come again, he said. They had breakfast at Holy Cannoli downstairs, dined on pizza at Portland Pie with their children, enjoyed brunch at the Front & Main restaurant in the Lockwood Hotel and bought wine and other items at the new shop, Main Street Provisions.

“I actually have someone moving in Monday who is going to rent it for two months,” Plourde said.

The 1,600-square-foot penthouse has two bathrooms, a large bedroom and an open living, dining and kitchen area. Despite busy downtown traffic outside, the penthouse was remarkably quiet. Plourde’s wife, Irene, and daughter Jamie did the interior design, he said. As more upper floors become developed into housing, Plourde recommends the city have a designated parking area on The Concourse for residents who could pay a fee to park there.

“That, to me, is the key to get people downtown,” he said.

Plourde, who has worked 40 years in real estate, renovated the second floor of the building for office space, finishing a large room overlooking The Concourse, as well as spaces overlooking Main Street.

He also is working to fill upper-floor spaces in the Day’s Jewelers building at 88 Main St., since Day’s moved its corporate offices to The Elm at 21 College Ave., a building Mitchell owns, which was then renovated. Tenants may rent individual office spaces or a suite of offices at 88 Main, which was renovated when Day’s moved its offices out. Plourde said the third floor of the building also is available for rent.

Vacant spaces on first floors downtown include the former U.S. Post Office building, the former Jorgensen’s Cafe, the former Al Corey music shop, the former Ken-A-Set building and the former Atkins Printing. Mitchell said if everyone works together, and persists, some great spaces can be filled with good tenants.

“With the revitalization efforts led by the city, Colby College the Alfond Foundation, Alfond family and Lunder family, Waterville is well-positioned for a next wave of growth, not just in downtown, but in the entire city,” Mitchell said. “I do think College Avenue also is positioned for opportunity and growth for business development because most of upper Main Street and Kennedy Memorial Drive is already developed.”

Mitchell’s properties include Penny Hill Park and KMD Plaza at 315 and 270 Kennedy Memorial Drive, respectively, 146 KMD, 14-28 Common St., 220, 222, 224 and 319 Main St. The buildings house 70 commercial tenants, ranging from national companies such as Edward Jones and Dairy Queen to local healthcare providers such as Waterville Pediatrics.

He said it is important the city work with partners including the colleges, healthcare institutions, schools and arts organizations to continue to focus on economic vibrancy.

“Everybody’s working toward that end but it takes a really organized, strategic vision and execution of that vision,” Mitchell said. “Housing and economic development are tied at the hip. We’ve got a good jump on housing now with developments underway or proposed. We’ve got a really good jump on the housing side of economic development and now we have to get a jump on the business side.”

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