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A plan for The Island and vicinity won approval from the three municipal boards in Rockingham this week.

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BELLOWS FALLS — An ambitious plan for The Island and the former paper mill industrial area now called Under the Hill won approval from the three municipal boards in Rockingham this week.

The detailed long-range, area-wide plan, which has been in the works for more than a year and involved consultants in Vermont and New Hampshire, envisions a new life for the 45-acre area mostly ignored, if not forgotten, in Bellows Falls.

The plan calls for the development of a Canal Walk, a new “gateway and overlook” to downtown Bellows Falls using the former Meatland site on Westminster Street, as well as a Connecticut River Heritage Center involving several former paper mills, as well as the Adams Grist Mill.

Other projects center around other former mill properties, many heavily contaminated with industrial waste.

While the plan presented by Rockingham Development Director Gary Fox was unanimously approved, it didn’t come without some criticism, with some officials calling it unrealistic.

But Town Manager Scott Pickup and Fox defended the plan, saying it was an outline for redevelopment of the two areas, which are between The Square and New Hampshire.

Pickup said future development in the area does face obstacles, and he noted dealing with the railroad and Great River Hydro, which owns the Bellows Falls hydro-electric station and land along the Connecticut River, could be a challenge.

“At least it gives us a road map,” he said.

Developers have contacted the town and village, he said, and such a big picture plan could be a further draw.

“It’s a very important step in the process,” Pickup said.

For instance, the former site of the Robertson Paper Mill, which was demolished and cleaned up in 2019 after years of planning, would be used for a combination housing and commercial development, bringing upward of 100 new apartments to the downtown area.

Since 2019, the site has remained vacant, waiting for an industrial prospect, with no takers, Fox and others noted.

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Bellows Falls Village Trustee James “Jiggs” McAuliffe said he had hoped the plan would put more of an emphasis on employment opportunities, rather than housing and recreational trails.

“There’s not enough emphasis on job creation,” said McAuliffe, who said he found it odd that while it was a town-generated report, the focus seemed to be on the village of Bellows Falls.

McAuliffe said he believes there is excess housing in Bellows Falls, and he again emphasized job creation.

“There’s a lot of old housing stock,” Fox conceded, which would require a tremendous amount of investment to bring up to standards. But major employers in the town, such as the Vermont Country Store and Chroma Technology, say their employees need good quality housing.

Rockingham and Bellows Falls in the latest census continue to lose population, he said. “Population is a serious problem,” he said.

Rockingham’s population has fallen below 5,000 people, while the village of Bellows Falls has fallen below 3,000, to 2,900, he said.

Village President Deborah Wright also said the plan is unrealistic, if at the same time attractive. “I don’t see it coming to fruition in this way,” she said, saying she couldn’t view it as a blueprint.

“It’s a ‘wishful thinking’ plan,” said Select Board Chairman Peter Golec, who said the timeline outlined in the report was “so unrealistic.”

No one is interested in the vacant Robertson Paper lot, said Golec.

But despite those criticisms, all board members voted in favor of the plan.

A series of public meetings was held last year to solicit ideas for redeveloping the area. Stevens & Associates of Brattleboro and Novis Group of Concord, N.H., wrote the report.

Fox said the plan could be a “very high level” blueprint for the area.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com.