WATERVILLE — The crowd, eyes cast toward the sky, cheered and watched excitedly as construction workers hoisted the final beam of the Paul J. Schupf Art Center into place in downtown Waterville.
People had gathered about an hour earlier to sign the beam as part of the topping out ceremony, traditionally held by builders to place the last beam atop of a structure and honor progress made on a project.
The Paul J. Schupf Art Center on Main Street, a partnership between Colby College and nonprofit Waterville Creates, will serve as a home for arts education, film and visual and performing arts. The center is the latest project in a series of revitalization efforts in downtown Waterville that began about six years ago. It’s symbolic of the vibrancy and creativity that runs through the community, which college and city leaders hope will establish itself as an arts destination and draw more visitors and residents to the area.
The $18 million project, funded completely through philanthropic efforts, will include the Maine Film Center, which will operate three cinemas; the Ticonic Gallery + Studios; the Joan Dignam Schmaltz Gallery of Art, an extension of the Colby College Museum of Art; and a new home for Waterville Creates. The building will also feature an artisan cafe and box office.
The art center will be completed in late 2022 and open to the public in early 2023.
Waterville City Manager Stephen Daly said the art center will add to the image of Waterville’s historic city hall and “the new life that’s being breathed into our downtown” through various projects and construction.
“We anticipate that the image and reputation and prowess [of the art center] is going to extend well beyond central Maine,” he said.
The city is investing several million dollars to upgrade playgrounds and parks and build athletic facilities that will run parallel to the arts community, Daly said. The hope is to attract visitors to spend money and enjoy the amenities that are designed to create meaningful experiences.
The art center has been taking shape for years and will be an economic driver for the downtown, Shannon Haines, Waterville Creates president and CEO, said.
“Waterville is a community that invests in and believes in the arts,” she said. “Railroad Square Cinema, the Maine International Film Festival, the Waterville Opera House … these institutions have enriched the cultural life of our city for decades thanks to the passion, creativity and commitment of their founders, their staff and volunteers and the patronage and generous support of so many of you here.”
Susan Rodriguez, an architect based in New York City, led the design team for the project. Her architecture firm, Susan T. Rodriguez | Architecture Design, worked with OPAL Architecture Research Design of Belfast, the architects of record. Landry French Construction, based in Scarborough, is the construction company working to complete the structure.
The center is named in honor of the late Colby College trustee emeritus Paul J. Schupf, who was a major art collector and one of the college’s largest donors.
“He would travel here from upstate New York and fall in love with the city,” Colby College President David Greene said. “The first time I talked to him about this project, … it was in about five minutes talking about the nature of this center of the arts and what it would become, and he said, ‘I will support that. I want to be part of that.’”
Efforts to reinvigorate the city are never complete because great cities evolve and change over time, Greene said. In Waterville, more than $200 million worth of investments are taking place, from new streetscapes and bridges to residential properties and local businesses, he said. Between 20 and 25 new businesses opened along Main Street in the last several years.
“People are investing in this downtown in a way that’s truly extraordinary,” he said. “We’re just beginning to see the results of this.”
Prior to the event, Brian Clark, vice president of planning at Colby College, highlighted other revitalization projects that were completed in recent years, including the Bill and Joan Alfond Main Street Commons, an apartment complex that houses about 200 Colby students; the Lockwood Hotel, which housed students during the pandemic and will open to the public next year; and Greene Block + Studios, an event and artistic programming space.
The college has invested about $85 million into these projects, Clark said.
“The art center is sort of the keystone and arch of these projects in many ways,” he said. “It really does represent an important moment for the arts, for Waterville, for all the progress that’s been happening.”