In the 19th and 20th centuries, Waterville, located about 20 miles up the Kennebec River from Maine’s state capital, Augusta, established itself as a mill and manufacturing town on the banks of the broad river, and became famous well beyond the state’s borders for producing high-quality, hand-made goods such as Hathaway dress shirts.
But this has changed in the past two decades. Those traditional industries retreated to become a shadow of their former selves. The local population fell by 20%, and rural Maine lost more than a thousand jobs. Today, however, tech firms are leading a cultural, economic, and digital comeback in Waterville, which has seen a 6% growth in its population in the past eight years.
A city of more than 16,000, Waterville is home to not one but two institutions of higher education, Colby College and Thomas College, that inject the sort of youthful vibrancy that makes college towns what they are, and play such a crucial role in building digital economy ecosystems that work in rural places. Colby has invested millions in downtown and the surrounding areas with the expectation that, over time, local economic growth will be self-sustaining. These campuses are long-standing sites of scholarship, athletics and culture, and now 21st-century innovation with startups like The Cubby, the creation of Colby undergrad Josh Kim.
And the journey to revitalize Waterville has only picked up steam in recent years.
The Central Maine Growth Council, backed by the local colleges and other contributors such as Bricks Coworking & Innovation Space, located in the former Hathaway factory, and the Maine Technology Institute, led the charge to secure $1.2 million in funding through the U.S. Economic Development Administration Build to Scale Venture Challenge that will amplify its digital economic development efforts. This effort includes the launch of Dirigo Labs, a regional tech accelerator program that leaders hope will lead to business and job creation in Waterville for years to come.
The Rural Edge series
At CORI, we have a saying: once you’ve seen one rural community, you’ve seen one rural community. America’s small towns are diverse and dynamic, and through our work with our Rural Innovation Network, we have the privilege of working in depth with 18 communities building digital economy ecosystems. To highlight these incredible places, Siegel Family Endowment and the Walmart Foundation provided funding for us to create video stories highlighting our communities’ efforts.
Check out previous installments in the series:
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