WATERVILLE — The former American Legion building on the edge of downtown is being developed into an event center that can accommodate up to 500 people — a needed element in the city, said Bill Mitchell, the building's owner.
Mitchell said Friday that discussions with "a number of people around town" made clear the need for larger space for events.
The need is crucial to the city's development, said Kim Lindlof, president of the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce Monday.
"The Waterville region is in dire need of event space that will accommodate 500 or more guests," she said. "Many annual events are stymied by limited space and parking."
She said that the city's development as an arts, dining and cultural destination means that annual meetings and conventions could be attracted to Waterville. "All other amenities are in place," she said, the city just needs the space for larger groups.
The 27,000-square-foot building at 21 College Ave. has been rebranded the Legion Event Center, not only as a nod to its history, but because the building's identity in the city is so strong Mitchell said.
The two-story building, which is on 2.57 acres, also has a walk-out basement level and a 500-person capacity auditorium area with a stage, as well as smaller meeting spaces and a large commercial kitchen.
Uses can range from music events and conventions, to weddings, business conferences and holiday parties, he said.
Building on a legacy
The building was constructed in 1950 and was home to Bourque-Lanigan American Legion Post 5 until Mitchell bought it in October 2017 for $500,000 in a deal brokered by The Boulos Co., of Portland, and Hoang Realty, of Augusta.
The veterans organization had listed the building the year before when it decided to move to smaller quarters in Waterville because of declining membership.
From 2002 until 2017, it was also the city's lone polling place.
When Mitchell bought the building, plans were for the Children's Discovery Museum to be a tenant. The museum plans to move from Augusta to Waterville, but has since decided to look for smaller space in Waterville, Mitchell said.
He said that one thing he knew when he bought the building was that he wanted to build on the legacy of the American Legion, which had been the building's only tenant since it was built.
He said that legacy will live on with its name.
"There were two schools of thought," Mitchell said. "The first was to come in with a completely different name, renovate it, rebrand it, and start from scratch with something completely new. The other is take what you have and make it better.
"When you say 'the Legion building,' everyone around Waterville knows where it is," he said.
"It also shows some respect and appreciation about what [the building] means to the veterans of central Maine."
Part of city's redevelopment
The building's downtown site, a block from Colby College's Alfond Commons retail and dorm building, which opened in August, makes development timely, Mitchell said.
Besides location, the building also has 160 parking spaces.
"It's a fabulous building," Mitchell said. "It has so many great attributes."
The first phase of the renovation includes interior cosmetic upgrades, like painting, carpeting, lighting and ceiling work.
He's also working with designers to make some of the smaller area flex space, where movable dividers can separate one of the rooms for smaller events.
Mitchell, owner and president of GHM Insurance in Waterville, is also a developer who owns 130,000 square feet of property in the city, much of it commercial, that breaks down to 12 properties with 18 buildings and 43 commercial tenants.
He said development opportunities for people like him have been boosted by Colby's $100 million investment in the city's downtown in the past four years, which not only includes building the Alfond Commons, but buying a number of buildings, the underway development of a hotel on Main Street and, with Waterville Creates!, the development of The Center at 93 Main St. into an arts center and gallery.
He said the effect is not just downtown, where he owns property next to the hotel project, but also creeping to other areas of the city.
"I'm thrilled to be part of it," he said.