Shirt factory renovated by alumnus
"Can I help you?" Cathi Lee asked me when I walked into the Schair-Swenson-Watson Alumni center hoping to find anyone who could tell me about the old Hathaway Shirts mill downtown. When I told her my mission, she responded, "Absolutely, I had my first job there out of college."
"Everybody has half of a degree of separation from Hathaway in Waterville," Paul Boghossian '76, the new owner of Waterville's historic Hathaway mill, said.
Indeed, everybody in Waterville seems to have either worked in the mill at some point, or is very close with somebody who did. In its heyday, Hathaway Shirts employed over 600 workers and made one of the highest-end shirt brands in the country for stores like Bloomingdales and Saks Fifth Avenue.
The mill is a point of pride for residents of Waterville, a vestige of the days when executives from the top department stores in Boston and New York would travel all the way up to mid-coastal Maine to see the shirts that made Waterville famous.
Boghossian hopes that his renovation and conversion of the mill into the Hathaway Creative Center, a five-story, 130,000 square foot mini-metropolis that is part apartment complex, part business park and part shopping mall, will help reinvigorate Waterville's economically depressed downtown.
The project began in 2001, after the mill finally closed. One former president of the company, who wished to remain anonymous, said the beginning of the end came in the early 80's when new ownership changed the target market and significantly cheaper labor became available offshore.
Upon the closing of the mill, the Waterville Development Corporation began searching for potential developers and eventually settled upon Boghossian because, as Mike Roy '74, City Manager of Waterville, said, "he had real enthusiasm for the city that the other applicants at the time didn't have."
Everyone involved in the project expects that the $35 million Boghossian and his investors have poured into the building will pay countless dividends for downtown Waterville.
"Getting more people to live downtown is absolutely critical to revitalizing the downtown area," Roy said. "The fact that Hathaway is so close and has 66 units will be a huge factor in assisting that effort."
"If this building was a mile downstream, I wouldn't have been interested," Boghossian said.
"The fact that it is downtown was really important. Maine is not growing in a huge way as far as population [but] what's happening is Maine is spreading out, which is not a sustainable model...I know we are going to see a major shift toward people living more in downtown areas."
Boghossian is not the only Colby person invested in revitalizing downtown.
"At every junction there were Colby people there who were ready to help," he said.
The College also played a big role in both getting the ball rolling for the Hathaway center and sealing the deal. Colby made the very first investment in the building, lending Boghossian the first $60,000 of the eventual $350,000 he needed to buy the building.
"It was a modest gift financially, but it really showed Colby's commitment to helping Waterville grow," Boghossian said. More importantly, Boghossian said, Colby stepped in "at the eleventh hour when the numbers weren't quite where we needed them to be" and donated the final $1 million dollars for the project, a saving effort that Boghossian said was "just crucial." "For any downtown area to be truly vibrant, you need people on the street 16 hours a day," Boghossian said, while describing the importance of downtown's revitalization.
"As this building fills up with commercial tenants, there will be jobs created here...This building is an icon in the eyes of many people in the community. To see it come back to life in such a cool way, there's some civic pride involved." In addition to the apartments, Maine General has already opened up a branch in Hathaway. The center will soon include a chocolate shop, three radio stations and an interior design company. Hathaway welcomes all potential business leases and hopes to soon add a pub and a museum to display all of the artifacts from the mill's history that they have inherited and collected.