U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., sits and speaks to members of the public alongside Steve Geller, executive director of SEVCA, RAMP founder Robert McBride,
U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., sits and speaks to members of the public alongside Steve Geller, executive director of SEVCA, RAMP founder Robert McBride, and Rockingham Selectboard Chairman Tom MacPhee on Monday. (Submitted photo)
Tuesday June 25, 2013

BELLOWS FALLS -- Local citizens and business owners expressed to their U.S representative their frustrations with the U.S. Congress and their concerns over the Vilas Bridge during a community forum held at a village store Monday.

U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., joined Rockingham Selectboard Chairman Tom MacPhee and other social service leaders at the Windham Antiques Center in The Square to hear from his constituents and stress his support of helping Vermont's small businesses and farmers.

"It went really well. I find it humbling to come back from a dysfunctional place like Washington, D.C., and see local people making immense efforts and using emotional and physical energy to improve their town, county and state," Welch told the Reformer, adding that he saw the same thing in Brattleboro earlier in the day. "I found it humbling for these folks who get up and say, ‘How can I make progress?' They are dealing with very challenging times and circumstances -- but they're doing it."

Welch told the Reformer how much he admired the Windham Antiques Center -- owned by Michael Bruno -- and how it reflects local entrepreneurship. He said Bruno had a great vision and his business now contributes to the civic life of downtown Bellows Falls.

Bruno said Welch's aides arranged the forum and he was happy to see the congressman address the public.

"I think it was nice to hear his viewpoints. And he talked about the importance of tax credits for downtown development," Bruno said. "It was wonderful. He's a very nice man.


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Welch told the Reformer there was a fair amount of dismay over partisanship in Congress and he spoke about the farm bill that was recently defeated.

"To build an economy you need a whole web of activity and enterprise. You have to work together," he said. "There's too much focus on ideological battling instead of comprehensive problem-solving. The goal at the end of the day is not to win, but to make progress."

MacPhee told the Reformer he enjoyed meeting with the congressman and said there should be more forums like the one held Monday.

He said he stressed to Welch the importance of getting FEMA reimbursement for the removal of debris left in the area's streams by Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011 and of getting the Vilas Bridge (which connects to Walpole, N.H.) reopened. MacPhee told the Reformer the town already has a half-million dollars invested in the debris removal and the Selectboard had to add one cent to the tax rate to cover part of the costs. He said the tax rate will increase another 2 or 3 cents if FEMA money is not received.

There is a movement within the town to get the Vilas Bridge rehabilitated, as it brings more vehicular traffic through The Square. The bridge's rehabilitation was postponed until 2022.

According to a 1993 letter from Charles O'Leary, the then-commissioner of the N.H. Department of Transportation, to Nancy C. Muller, then the director and state preservation officer for the N.H. Division of Historical Resources, the Vilas Bridge would be removed only under exceptional circumstances (natural disasters creating a serious safety hazard or another unforeseen situation).

But the 635-foot-long bridge was closed following a semi-annual inspection that found continued deterioration of the reinforced bridge deck, according to a statement released by the New Hampshire Department of Transportation in March 2009.

However, the New Hampshire Preservation Alliance, at its annual meeting, named the Vilas to its Seven to Save list -- a collection of seven historic structures it is dedicated to restoring in the near future. According to the NHPA's website, Seven to Save was created in 2006 "to focus attention and resources on significant historic properties in New Hampshire that are threatened by neglect, deterioration, insufficient funds, inappropriate development, and/or insensitive public policy."

Domenic Poli can be reached at dpoli@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277. You can follow him on Twitter @dpoli_reformer.