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'Tis the Season: Kringleville Past and Present

By JOHN PICCHIOTTI, Local businessman and REM board member
(December 11, 2000)

'Tis the season-- the hustle, the bustle, a time to feel good.  Joy, glad tidings, loved ones and giving are all rolled up into one big bundle. It's also the time that most of our local merchants possibly make a little money, so that they will be around for us next year. Sounds very commercial, doesn't it? Well, it is. Some of our stores do 40% (or more) of their business during the last two months of the year. This can mean the difference between survival and yet another empty store front downtown. It is a fact of life, whether we like it or not.

We will read many articles about the commercialization of the Season (and I use the Season, because it is the season of many peoples and religions), but who is paying attention to what is going on behind the scenes in our town? Who is willing to respect each other enough to sit and talk things over?

One of the biggest fears in any community, given today s business atmosphere, is, "Will downtown survive?" We need to ask what merchants are doing to help themselves, and whether they alone in making those decisions. We also need to ask city government what it is doing to revitalize downtown, and, more importantly, how it is interacting with merchants--and all citizens who have a direct or indirect interest in this--from the child who sits on Santa's lap in Kringleville to the beneficiaries of sales and property taxes.

In reality, it takes a lot more than a handful of merchants to keep the heart (our downtown) of our community going. It requires cooperation between all of the groups of the city. It requires keeping track of the pulse of the community and what everyone wants to see in our downtown. It requires sitting down and discussing the problems, developing a path to solve those problems, and then making sure that path is followed. What it does not need is anyone (regardless of position or stature) making decisions that will affect our downtown for years without meeting with all parties that will be affected.

Everyone has their own ideas on what has to be done in any community. However, it takes everyone s ideas to make it happen. We need to approach downtown revitalization and issues with our eyes open, seeing and feeling what is needed. Unless one has spent at least one minute running a shop downtown, opening their entire soul (and life savings) to the world everyday and putting at risk everything one owns, anyone who thinks he or she can make decisions that will affect those who do this everyday without consulting them seems absurd. People who spend money downtown and people who offer the goods for that money should and better be consulted before any decision is made to make any changes downtown.

Which brings us to the discussion as to whether city funds should be spent on any projects that might bring the buying public downtown. If I remember correctly, all of that money spent downtown does have strings attached. I think they call it sales tax, of which a somewhat large portion is returned to the town. Wouldn't that just slightly affect everyone who lives in town?

Let's start with a current controversy-- Kringleville. Having been involved in this project several years ago (maybe several severals time flies when you are having fun), I can only relate to my experiences with this project. It was a time when Waterville was trying to retain its identity as the "Hub of Central Maine," when there was good interaction between merchants and City Hall. The Downtown Association was being revived and Mayor David Bernier was trying to create excitement and save the downtown.

My kids and grandkids (as well as yours) have and will be going to this wonderful place in Castonguay Square. It may be old fashioned and out of date, but just stand outside the back door and see the kids' faces when they come out, hear the music that filters through the park, and feel the excitement on opening day (the parade day). The lines are formed and there is nary a sound of how cold it is. At that time, we worked hard to get the house back into shape. We had cooperation. Mayor Bernier took an active roll in helping us and with the cooperation of the merchants and city hall, we saved Kringleville for the time. There was much discussion at that time about getting rid of Kringleville and putting Santa in the then named Sterns Center." We had meetings and discussions and opinions. The consensus? No way were we going to kill Kringleville without incurring the wrath of most in the area. It was darn hard work to keep it alive, but it was accomplished. And on opening day, the lines were all the way out to Main Street, waiting to see Santa. Was it worth it? You bet. The merchants did not seem to mind the people hanging around either. People even spent some money. It might even have stopped a few shoppers from going to the malls that day.

Kringleville is a time-honored tradition. I'll even bet that some of you reading this spent a little time in that house on Santa's lap. You might even have a few snap shots lying around that can back that up.

Should a few bucks be spent to up date and redo the house? Do you want it moved into the Center? I have not found anyone that I have talked with in favor of that. Oh, I am sure someone would, but the majority?

I think not.

When I first drafted this article, I thought, if the park is so decadent with terrible decorations and a house that is falling down (as one citizen put it), then spend some money on it. It is called reinvesting and promotion, terms that are used in business quite often. Possibly these are even terms used in courses that are taught to future retailers at some of our local institutions of higher education. Let's wake up, people! We have some of the best minds I have ever come across in our community, but not one of them, acting alone, can accomplish a lot. I believe the quote is no man is an island. It takes all of us to do it.

This column ends on a happier note. One very local, community-based group, led by new downtown business owner Zan Frost and Lisa Burton, succeeded in raising $5000 to put Santa's House back in order and place it in Castonguay Square. Even the City of Waterville finally chipped in $1000, and more is yet to come. Zan is largely responsible for the magnificently-lit tree in the Square, as well as orchestrating a long overdue clean-up of the new park in the Concourse last fall. The generosity of Ware Butler, Hammond Lumber, Kennebec Building Supply, Sherwin Williams, and Mardens, together with the building skills of the people of Chinet, had Kringleville up and going by the Thanksgiving Parade. Zan and Lisa's civic-minded group also aims to spiff up the entire park and work on more decorations for downtown (as a future project). Community cooperation sparked by community pride can still get a lot done. Thank you, Zan and Lisa, for leading the way, and demonstrating through your own efforts and hard work how property owners, merchants, city hall, and all the rest of us, can cooperate--once again-- to make good things happen.

Finally, as a board member of REM, the regional civic association based at the Center, I'd like bring to the community's attention the Forum space on the first floor of the Center. REM's executive director Faye Nicholson, together with a score of volunteers, has succeeded in renovating the space to open it up for even more public use. (And, Faye, you did a great job with the beautiful Christmas tree for all to enjoy throughout the month in that room!) It seems appropriate to offer the Forum space as a place to convene a community forum on this subject--perhaps after the holidays. It's one reason why REM pays the rent on that space month after month--let's put it to use to build the community dialogue on this topic and many others.