February 8, 2013

Empty Waterville business buildings finding new occupants

While there are limits to redevelopment of aging commercial stock, the trend seems positive, officials say

By Amy Calder acalder@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

click image to enlarge

The former Harris Baking Company building at 1 Harris St. is one of several empty building in Waterville.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

WATERVILLE — Like many other small cities, Waterville has its share of vacant buildings.

Sometimes a building will remain vacant for many years before catching the eye of someone who sees its potential, as in the case of the former Levine’s clothing store building on Main Street downtown. 

Connecticut businessman Michael Soracchi announced last week that he plans to buy the building later this month and renovate it with apartments on the upper floors and retail space on the basement and first floors.

City Manager Michael Roy notes that several buildings that were vacant a long time are now occupied.

The building on The Concourse that formerly housed Ames department store and other shops is full with businesses including Save-a-Lot and Inland Family Care. The former Rite Aid building on Main Street is occupied by Elmwood Primary Care.

The former Hathaway shirt factory on Water Street has been renovated and houses nearly 70 apartments, MaineGeneral and HealthReach offices and a handful of businesses, and is poised to take on more.

“There have been some success stories,” Roy said.

He cites Gilman Place as another such story. The former Gilman Street School was vacant a long time before developers turned it into affordable housing.

“Were it not for the Gilman Place project, we’d be faced with another empty building,” Roy said. “I just think the rehabilitation of that building is one of the best success stories in the city in the last 25 years. I really do.”

Mayor Karen Heck says helping to find uses for vacant buildings is a priority.

“I think it’s a really important step to take,” she said. “We have buildings with good bones — we should do what we can to save them — and we have other buildings we might want to look at taking down and selling the land. It’s important we get this process moving.”

When a building owner needs help marketing a building, economic development advocates such as Waterville Main Street, Central Maine Growth Council and Waterville Development Corp. try to help. The city also tries to help.

“The city is certainly willing to sit down with any building owner or concerned citizens or neighbors to talk about what we can and can not do,” Roy said. “It’s very, very important to the city that those buildings be taken care of, and we try to get them back to a healthy property assessment or value. The city is concerned and will do whatever it can.”

Renovation, marketing challenges

There are limits as to what the city can do about vacant buildings, especially if it does not own them.

Sometimes people ask city officials why a rundown building, for instance, has not been fixed up or torn down.

“Unless they violate some code, we have no right to go in and take (action),” Roy said.

Such is the case with the former Harris Baking Co. building, which has been vacant since 1998.

The nonprofit organization, Dirigo Company Young Marines, took ownership of the building in 2009 after Columbia Falls businessman Morrill Worcester transferred the deed to Dirigo with the stipulation that it pay taxes and other fees owed to the city.

Dirigo, which has since changed its name to Dirigo U.S. Ranger Cadets, paid the taxes and planned to renovate the building and use it for offices and training.

But Floyd Smith, who runs the organization, said a combination of factors has made renovating the building difficult including Dirigo’s unsuccessful attempt to get tax-exempt status and the theft of tools and equipment from inside the building.

Meanwhile, the city would have foreclosed on the building as of this Monday, but Smith on Wednesday paid $3,300, preventing the foreclosure, according to the city’s tax collector, Linda Cote.

(Continued on page 2)

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