Friday March 29, 2013

Wilmington officials and town residents have a lot to be proud of these days.

When Tropical Storm Irene struck in August 2011 it left such devastation that in the immediate aftermath many residents and business owners found themselves scratching their heads and wondering where and how to begin recovering from such a calamity. Most, however, refused to accept defeat. They pulled up their boot straps, cleaned up the mess and began rebuilding.

But the recovery effort went beyond simple cleanup and repair. Town officials and residents had the foresight to look further into the future and create a plan that, as Gov. Peter Shumlin has said many times, "leaves us better than Irene found us."

The town has been working hard these last 18 months to put various aspects of that plan into place, and now those efforts are coming to fruition.

Earlier this week town officials received approval for their application to the Vermont Downtown Program for Downtown Designation board. The Wilmington Fund, created after Irene, and Wilmington Works, the name of the downtown designation, will work together in revitalization efforts for at least the next five years.

"We’re already a designated village, but by becoming a designated downtown, it makes us eligible for additional monies and tax credits and grants," said Town Manager Scott Murphy. "One of the key things besides the financial aspect is that we would get additional support and help for Wilmington Works because they’re very hands-on for the downtown program."

The first step will be the creation of a Wilmington Works board, a well-rounded group that will be made up of property owners, business owners, community members, a Mount Snow Valley Chamber of Commerce member and others designated by the Selectboard and the Wilmington Fund. They will be charged with carrying out the mission statement, "to build, improve and support a vital downtown that benefits the entire Wilmington community."

To do that the board will form subcommittees that will be responsible for organization, economic development, promotion and design.

The new downtown designation and the efforts of Wilmington Works will complement other efforts achieved through the newly created Economic and Community Development Fund. The fund, approved by voters at Town Meeting earlier this month, establishes the procedures for using proceeds collected from a 1 percent option tax on meals alcoholic beverages and rooms that was approved by Town Meeting voters last year.

The town expects to recoup more than $215,000 annually with the sales tax in place. The Selectboard wants to establish a revolving loan fund for businesses in town, make various aesthetic improvements to the downtown area and assist with funding summer and fall events. The money can also be used to provide matching funds for grants, such as those received through Wilmington Works.

Meanwhile, separate from these economic development efforts but still an important ingredient to Wilmington’s vitality as a tourist attraction, has been various beautification efforts in the downtown area.

Last fall there was a large-scale tree planting project along the Deerfield River as part of Windham County Natural Resources Conservation District’s Trees for Streams program. This effort primarily was about restoring the eroded banks of the river after the flood, but of course anything that improves the area’s aesthetics, both natural and manmade, is good for the town.

The same can be said for the town’s Beautification Committee and its efforts to upgrade the Gateway Garden at the entrance of Wilmington between Route 100 south and Route 9 east. Phase one of the upgrades -- the installation of perennials within an oval shaped section of land -- actually was completed two years ago, but the phase two completion of the project was delayed because of Tropical Storm Irene.

"We feel it’s important because it’s a scenic welcome," Wilmington Beautification Committee Chairwoman Lee Schindel told the Selectboard recently. "We want to make a strong visual statement."

The committee plans to begin the project in early spring and have everything planted before June 15.

Now, if only all this snow would hurry up and melt so the town can get on with the project.