WATERVILLE, Maine — Theresa Dunn, owner of Jorgensen’s Cafe, moved the eatery from its location on Main Street about a half-mile north to a building with better features and parking last June.
With roadway construction picking up, she worried where customers would park while the city continued major revitalization efforts downtown that called for replacing diagonal parking with fewer parallel parking spots. Now Dunn has her own parking lot, but she hopes the remaking of downtown ultimately helps small businesses.
Businesses are dealing with the effects of construction and limited parking for customers as the city enters its last several months of work along the main stretch of downtown — and hoping that they’ll benefit in the long term.
“Of course, it’s been disruptive,” Waterville City Manager Stephen Daly said. “You can’t do the kind of work that’s being done here without impacting the businesses. The two years that we dealt with COVID just complicated that impact in an enormous way.”
When Colby College and Waterville began the revitalization work, their vision included a downtown with fewer cars that was safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. An improved Main Street and surrounding area — along with Front Street converting from one- to two-way traffic — is meant to attract more people to local shops and restaurants and increase business opportunities, even as it reduces the amount of parking available.
Customer traffic was hit particularly hard during shutdowns, Daly said, but people are filling parking lots downtown these days despite construction. Businesses will benefit in the long run, he said.
Now that major construction is almost done on one side of Main Street — with trees to be planted and crosswalks, street lights and traffic markings to be added — crews are focused on the upper half that runs from Post Office Square to Temple Street, he said. Parking will change from diagonal to parallel, and pedestrians will have room to stroll on the sidewalks once construction wraps up in early November.
Truck traffic from Interstate 95 toward downtown will be rerouted to Front, Elm and Spring streets, and trucks will be barred from the Main Street area except for deliveries, Daly said.
Malcolm Porter, who co-owns a candy and gift shop called Incense and Peppermints with his husband, David Spinney-Porter, said he was on board with the revitalization projects because they would give more people a reason to visit downtown Waterville.
He was willing to put up with the headache that construction would inevitably cause if it meant more visibility for his business. Porter looks forward to August, when the Lockwood Hotel should open, because guests looking out their windows will see his shop across the street.
When heavy construction was happening near his store, Porter noticed a dip in customer traffic because a chain link fence with tarps went up, essentially blocking the entrance to his business. The business made a robust investment in advertisements via print, radio and social media.
“We had to battle them [the city and crews] to get permission to put banners with our business names on them over some of the tarps on the chain link,” he said.
Some people continue to avoid Main Street — even the area where construction is mostly wrapped up, Porter said.
“The hard part is you know the locals know about the Concourse and the parking lot behind our store, but they don’t want to come downtown because of construction,” he said. “The touristy people don’t know about the Concourse. They see there is no parking and leave.”
Construction crews placed ramps near the door of Madlyn’s New & Used Consignment Shop, so customers had a place to walk, store manager Heidi Mooney said. Some customers stopped shopping in person, instead visiting the store’s Facebook page, she said.
Selah Tea Cafe, owned by Rachel and Bobby McGee, is seeing about one-third fewer customers this summer compared to last year, Bobby McGee said. It’s easy to point the finger at construction, but tough economic conditions, high gas prices and fewer students in the summertime are also factors, he said.
McGee is optimistic about downtown looking prettier and more inviting, but the lack of convenient parking has been the biggest challenge for his business. When the Bill & Joan Alfond Main Street Commons was built across the street, the cafe’s customers lost access to a 90-spot parking lot, he said.
An elderly man with a cane who was once a regular now has days when he’s unable to stop by because he can’t find parking, McGee said. Other loyal customers say they’re willing to deal with disruptions and will continue to support the cafe.
The city and construction company told McGee funding isn’t available to small businesses bearing the brunt of the changes, but he might consult with a state representative, he said.
“I’m trying not to take a salary right now just to keep things afloat. Sometimes you have to make personal sacrifices,” McGee said.
Business owners acknowledged safety concerns about Main Street changing from one- to two-way traffic, especially for elderly drivers. Porter, a former police officer and paramedic, hopes the city takes time to educate the public so collisions can be avoided. He also worries about increasing rent and how it will touch small businesses in the long term, he said.
Along with the reimaging of Main Street, the Waterville Public Library has been undergoing an extensive renovation, and a project to replace the Ticonic Bridge that spans the Kennebec River between Waterville and Winslow is set to begin later this year.
The city and Colby College will soon start planning the next phase, with an emphasis on parking, mixed-use development and creating a safe walkway from the RiverWalk at Head of Falls to Main Street, Daly said. They’ll also consider ways to improve Temple and Appleton streets, the area around the library and other locations.
“Once we have the vision in place with a lot of public input, we’ll go shopping for interested parties who might want to engage in redevelopment of those areas,” he said.