Rural American towns have it tough these days. Young people are leaving, factories are shutting down, and the tax base is often dwindling, reducing money for infrastructure, maintenance, and even for 4th of July fireworks.
But not all towns are fading like this. James Fallows and his wife Deborah wrote about many resilient & resurging small towns in their excellent book and HBO series Our Towns, visiting dozens of small places that were well-aware of their challenges and working hard on real solutions.
My hometown of Waterville, ME is like that. It’s a colorful place with a long history and both several advantages and good breaks along the way. Otherwise, perhaps it, too, would have fallen into dispair and disrepair as so many towns have.
I think often about these factors and how they affect small towns, good and bad, what’s important, and how to drive growth, prosperity, and happiness.
So, let’s talk about Waterville.
Founded in 1802 and situated on the banks of the Kennebec River in central Maine, this city of 17,000 serves as the economic hub of the area of about 50,000 people - big enough to have real things like department stores, Walmart, movie theaters, and the regions’s only Starbucks.
Waterville has been a railroad and manufacturing hub for well over a hundred years, as the Maine Central Railroad converged on the city and still runs through, next to the large and still-operating centralized maintenance shops.
The river has some nice waterfalls and elevation change, providing power to old-school mills for a hundred years, and just above the falls were large paper mills using the water for log transport from the northern forests (fortunately log drives ended in the 1970s due to all the environmental damage caused by log drives - I saw the last ones as a boy). The mills provided thousands of good jobs for workers.
Home Town Colleges
Very importantly, Waterville is home to the 208-year-old Colby College, a prestigious liberal arts school, and one of Maine’s three “Little Ivys”. This long-time economic anchor of the city is playing an increasingly important role in revitalizing the city here in the 21st century. It, along with its Maine peers Bowdoin and Bates Colleges, provide a lot of diversity and cultural enrichment (plus economic enrichment) to their communities, which tend to be older, whiter, and more conservative.
Waterville also has the 127-year-old Thomas College, which started as a community college giving two-year degrees, but is now a full-fledged four-year college with 13,000 largely local students, providing good jobs and local education that helps keep young people in the area.
Thomas College also provides a lot of educated staff in important areas like accounting, management, technology, administration, etc. that are valuable to local companies, helping them build and grow their businesses in the area.
Rounding out local higher-education, Kennebec Valley Community College is next door in Fairfield, providing strong vocational, healthcare, IT, and trades education in support of key local industries.
Travel & Shopping
As the regional center for 50,000+ people, Waterville is also the retail, shopping, and restaurant center, with multiple large shopping centers going back decades. Recent additions include Walmart, Home Depot, and numerous national fast food outlets. These all draw folks into town for both day and nighttime activities, and their spillover spending.
The city is also fortunate to be on both I-95 and US Route 201 highways, the two major north-south arteries in Maine, making transportation, logistics, and just getting around very convenient. This makes the city, especially its retail sector and jobs, easily accessible to regional residents and helps integrate the surrounding area towns and villages together.
This is also why the city has the local Federal Office, IRS, and Social Security offices, and the Main Children’s Discovery Museum recently moved into the city. All helpful resources for such a small city.
Lakes & Summer People
Central Maine is blessed with numerous lovely lakes, most of which have a lot of summer cottages owned or rented by “summer people” from New England, New York, and beyond.
These urbanites come for the summer, bringing urban tastes and budgets to support higher-end restaurants, cafes, antique shops, festivals, art museums, and more. There may not be a lot of overlap betwen rich New Yorkers and the local folks, but we sure do appreciate their summer spending.
The Waterville area also hosts several of Maine’s famous summer camps, each bringing 250+ well-heeled kids and counselors to the area for the summer, so much so that private jet parking can be scarce at the local airport on parent-visit weekends.
All this economic activity starting a century ago provided the money and interest for ‘real’ culture - Waterville has had an operating opera house, part of city hall, for over 130 years. It’s also had both major multi-screen movie theaters and a vibrant art-house movie theater and scene since the 1970s, long before small indie movies and theaters became popular in the ‘90s. Waterville also hosts the nearly 25-year-old annual Maine International Film Festival, drawing visitors and movie talent into scenic central Maine.
Waterville has suffered many of the same challenges as other small towns, as mills close and incomes fall. The Scott Paper mill on the river closed in 1997 and remains a rusting hulk along the river, just across from the Hathaway Shirt factory, built in 1863, closing in 2002.
Fortunately, the other major factory in town, Keyes Fibre, now Huhtamaki, remains in town, where it’s been making Chinet paper plates in Waterville for 108 years. I worked there for a summer in the 1980s and it’s still going strong.
Buy more Chinet plates, please. They really are better, and employ folks in Maine.
Also, as a regional service and retail center, with law, accounting, and other offices, plus the colleges, Waterville has been much less directly dependent on manufacturing than other rural areas. This diversity really pays off in tougher times, and every town needs more of it.
But still, with slowly dwindling active storefronts, downtown has suffered, and a large downtown strip mall is now relegated to dollar stores and Good Will. By the start of the 21st century, probably 50% of Main Street was closed, though never boarded up, as the city worked to keep things looking nice and New England-like all along.
Like many rural areas opioids have also made an unwelcome appearance, as a local firefighter was recently telling me it was three days since they got an overdose call. Usually they get one every day or two.
And the city is aging, with a lot of older and poorer people who are not well-prepared for, nor leaping into, 21-st century industries. In recent times, even before COVID, there were plenty of jobs around but not plenty of ready, willing, and able workers.
Waterville has been slowly working to improve all this. The major catalyst has absolutely been Colby College, and its critical decision to really invest back into the city that’s been its home for two centuries. Read more about this on Colby’s site.
Colby is situated on a hill more than a mile from downtown, and thus it and its students could, and did, avoid downtown, other than perhaps Walmart at the end of town. This only got worse over the decades as downtown decayed.
But Colby, along with several other similarly-situated relatively wealthy schools in small towns, realized it cannot prosper, nor attract world-class faculty or students, without a vibrant local community.
Thus it committed hundreds of millions of dollars to help Waterville upgrade the city, especially downtown. This was a major, major investment and, while ongoing, has already been transforming Main Street, with much more to come. It’s not without controversy, but the short-and long-term improvements are significant.
First, it took over and renovated the largest, and empty, old office building on Main St., with several floors of administrative and back-office functions. That poured over a hundred white-collar workers into the heart of the city, where they all need lunch and morning coffee, and over time, places for dinner, drinks, and entertainment along with shopping, shoe repairs, haircuts, and the like.
Second, Colby built a large dormitory right on Main St., in an old parking lot. A nice modern brick building, it helps anchor the area, and of course, provides another couple hundred relatively wealthy residents who need food, drinks, and other services in the area.
Third, it just built a new boutique hotel at the other end of Main St., raising the quality of high-end places to stay in town, which is important for donors, faculty, and others who were otherwise in the Holiday Inn or motels. This adds another couple hundred continuous visitors who need dinner and other services in the heart of town, where the Opera house and cafes are but a two-minute walk away.
Fourth, they are funding a huge effort to rebuild an old department store, where I shopped as a child, into a new arts center, with art-house movie theaters, production facilities, galleries, and more, right downtown, next to City Hall and the Opera House.
This helps relieve some space issues on campus, but it really pushes visitors and the arts all the way downtown, for students, faculty, and our summer visitors who frequent the galleries, shows, and movies. And all of whom spend time and money on Main St.
And fifth, it’s investing in other buildings and supporting projects in the area to further inject people, infrastructure, and money into the area. This is helping catalyze other companies and investors to also invest in the area in various projects.
For example, a very large long-vacant factory a couple of hundred yards down the river from all of the above-mentioned Colby rebuilding activity is slowly getting re-purposed into co-working space and offices, including for local health care and other business back offices. Again, with lots of workers who walk up to Main St. for food and services.
And a neighboring old factory is being renovated into apartments that will also add a few hundred relatively prosperous folks to the area, helping lead the upgrades to the long-decaying south end of the city.
All this adds at least 500-1,000 new people to a Main Street area three blocks long, injecting new energy, spending, and vibrancy into a 220-year-old city.
All of this bodes well for Waterville’s future, and by extension, the future of the surrounding towns, where my family has been for a century or so. Of course, not all cities and towns have these advantages or even luck, but those that have a bit of either can stretch them a long way indeed.
There are also many lessons of local involvement, diversity of the economy, and continual work to make incremental improvements while partnering with schools, companies, and other institutions to make bigger changes that invest for the future.