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September 19, 2018

Waterville's $1.5 million Riverwalk opens to public

Photo / Maureen Milliken
Photo / Maureen Milliken
Waterville's $1.5 million Riverwalk is open to the public at the Head of Falls. The former mill site has been vacant for decades.

Waterville's $1.5 million Riverwalk at Head of Falls has opened to the public, a few weeks before a ribbon-cutting ceremony that will feature a keynote address by city native George Mitchell, the former U.S. senator.

The project, which comes at the same time as major redevelopment of the city's downtown, is expected to help spur economic development of the city.

The 2,200-foot long curving walkway skirts the bank of the Kennebec River just above the Ticonic Falls and was carved into a 14-acre grass expanse that has been vacant since the Wyandotte mill was razed decades ago.

The project was spurred by a $150,000 pledge from the Waterville Rotary Club in 2015. The club celebrates its 100th year this year, and the Oct. 6 ribbon-cutting will be part of that celebration.

Sen. Mitchell grew up in the Lebanese-Syrian neighborhood near the mill, much of which was levelled during the city's urban renewal projects of the 1960s and 70s. He served in the U.S. Senate from 1980 to 1995, and was Senate majority leader from 1989 to 1995.

Project mostly complete

Photo / Maureen Milliken
Photo / Maureen Milliken
The north end of Waterville's Riverwalk, with the amphitheater at right and the relocated 'Ticonic' sculpture.

While some finishing touches still are in the works — the grass lining the walkway is still fragile, and some of the elements have yet to be placed — the walkway, lined with flowers, public art and benches is complete.

Riverwalk, designed by Mitchell & Associates of Portland, is bookended by a gazebo at the south end, near the entrance to the Two Cent Bridge, a historic pedestrian bridge that connects Waterville to Winslow across the river. City officials said the 576-foot bridge, once used by millworkers, is the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the nation.

At the north end is an amphitheater with granite and grass seats built into a rise in the land. The "Ticonic" sculpture that was in the city's Concourse, has been relocated to the Riverwalk's north end.

A play area has water pumps and criss-crossed logs.

The concrete walkway widens and narrows, evoking the river that runs alongside it.

Time is ripe

Photo / Maureen Milliken
Photo / Maureen Milliken
A gazebo is at the south end of Riverwalk. The spires of the Two Cent Bridge can be seen in the background.

The area, which was a large expanse of empty grass for decades, is a block from Main Street, and the city hopes the project will spur economic development. The site has been described by the city as "one of the city's most important historic areas, underutilized for the last 45 years."

In 2005, more than $1 million was spent on infrastructure, including in water, sewer and electric, to attract developers, but it remained empty.

The project also comes at a good time — Colby College's 150,000-square-foot Alfond Commons, a mixed use dormitory and retail building, opened on the corner of Main and Temple streets this month, one block from Head of Falls.

The new building, which is on another urban renewal site that was most recently a parking lot, is part of the college's $50 million investment in the city's downtown.

City Manager Mike Roy said earlier this year development inspired by the Riverwalk project will enhance the economic vitality of the city while preserving public access to the waterfront.

He told Mainebiz that the time was ripe, considering other development in the city, and the river was now an asset that the city should capitalize on. "In the '60s and early '70s, the river wasn't a pleasant place to visit," Roy said. " It was certainly not seen as major attraction. Now some cities would kill to have a site like this."

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