WILMINGTON—People turned out at a meeting this week to express worry that a fast-food franchise in the heart of the business district could damage the town’s economy and character.
A large audience filled most of the second-floor meeting room of the Town Office building on Aug. 17 as the Design Review Board heard the Sandri Companies’ application to add a Dunkin’ Donuts to its current gas station on Route 9.
There, most of the public comments focused on saying “no” to adding a fast food franchise to the town.
One opponent of the proposal, Andrea Silverman, said that almost 400 people have signed an online petition she started earlier this month, opposing the franchise.
She carried copies of petitioners’ comments, which stretched to eight pages.
The president of the Greenfield, Mass.-based firm, Michael Behn, gave frank answers to the audience’s questions.
He was joined by Richard Marcks, director of operations, and Peter C. Lazorchak, vice president and principal engineer of Wilcox and Barton, based in Moretown.
When possible, Marcks tried to draw similarities between the business needs of Sandri and a local general store or other local business in town.
Behn is proposing to add the Dunkin’ Donuts to its gas station — now an unstaffed, self-serve station located on less than an acre of land — at 43 East Main St., which is sandwiched between a Family Dollar and the post office.
According to Sandri representatives, the Dunkin’ Donuts company wants to operate a 24/7 fast food business with a drive-through. Behn estimates the new venture would create 14 jobs between the food side and gas station side of the operation.
Sandri would pay to rehabilitate the building to ready it for the franchise.
If approved by the DRB, the Dunkin’ Donuts would join the handful of chain operations, including a Rite Aid, a Mobil station with convenience store, a Family Dollar, and Shaw’s Supermarket.
Some residents have said those chains are more than enough for the small town.
For almost two hours, board members asked questions and took public comment before they recessed the hearing.
The board will hold a site visit before the second part of the hearing resumes on Aug. 31.
Conforming to character?
Members of the public voiced many concerns with the proposal, including traffic congestion, safety for cars and pedestrians in a new busy parking lot, building aesthetics, and a questionable benefit of providing mostly minimum-wage jobs in a tough economy.
Top of the list of concerns, however, was destroying Wilmington’s small-town, unique, and “charming” character cherished by locals and visitors.
“This project does not conform to the character of the area,” said Ryan Bartlett, an interested party who said he was speaking on behalf of fellow residents.
This fast-food chain could do damage to the town’s character, he said.
Holding up glossy postcards of the Vermont landscape, Laura Steele outlined the many ways that the project did not conform to goals in the Town Plan — goals like protecting the scenic qualities of the town, attracting young people, and promoting businesses that pay a living wage, she said.
Marcks responded that not all proposed 14 jobs earn minimum wage. Some of the entry level jobs are minimum wage to approximately $10 an hour, he said. Assistant managers earn up to $15 an hour, and the manager can earn an annual salary of $30,000 to $40,000.
“It is a way to train our younger children,” Marcks said, crediting his success in business to a newspaper route at age 14.
Marcks continued that the Sandri property is not downtown but nestled with buildings of similar architecture.
“You can’t do much with a building unless it has a purpose,” he said, adding that repair garages aren’t profitable anymore and pointing out that the Dunkin’ Donuts would be a way to repurpose the building.
Members of the DRB asked the Sandri representatives about how they expected traffic congestion to play out in “the perfect storm” of heavy traffic.
Imagine a weekend of a big event, such as the Vermont Blueberry Festival, they asked, offering a scenario of a funeral taking place at the Covey, Allen & Shea Funeral Home across the street, while people are waiting to get into the small post office parking lot next door and drivers are in the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through while cars are lining up at the gas pumps.
Lazorchak said that he expected that if it was that congested, drivers would keep going.
Steele, also an interested party, commented that with increased traffic came the increased chance of accidents. Since locals who live nearby will travel that road the most, they’re most likely to be affected by accidents.
Steele also noted that she had spent part of her weekend picking up trash near the Harriman Reservoir and held up a battered Dunkin’ Donuts cup as an illustration that despite not even having this franchise, the town already deals with its trash.
The DRB also raised concerns about lighting and whether the lights would conform to international design standards that aim to reduce light pollution and outdoor glare.
Marcks and Lazorchak said that yes, the proposed lighting would meet such standards, with all the lights pointing down. They added that the fixtures might be made to look more antique in style, as opposed to looking like florescent tubes.
Bartlett told the DRB that he had heard reports of illegally dumped hazardous materials at the site. Since food would be served in the building, he urged the DRB to require an environmental survey.
The board must decline the project’s permit because it violates several ordinances including parking and traffic, said Bartlett.
‘Still a business opportunity’
During the open public comment, David Boliver said he understood the town will always change but he did not favor a franchise close to downtown.
“If you want to have a Putney Road going on here, then keep going,” he said, referring to Brattleboro’s heavily commercialized area of town with mostly chain businesses and square buildings with flat roofs.
An employee of Sandri’s spoke in favor of the project, adding that most of all the jobs in the area are minimum wage.
People are looking for full-time, non-seasonal, non-resort jobs, he said.
“What is bad about a franchise?” he asked. “It’s still a business opportunity.”
Town Clerk and Selectboard member Susan Haughwout reminded the audience that the time to raise concerns about what they wanted — or didn’t want — in town would have been during the crafting of the Town Plan or drafting of zoning ordinances.
“That’s the community’s activism,” she said — when the public has the most power.
If people wait until a controversial issue to speak up, they might not have as much power to effect change.
Wendy Manners, DRB member and chair of the Planning Commission, agreed, telling the audience that the commission has drafted language around franchises that are before the Selectboard.
The Selectboard has the final approval on such policy, but if people don’t speak up, the board won’t know what they want, she warned.
‘You can’t survive on gasoline alone’
The DRB meeting wasn’t Behn’s and Marcks’ first appearance before the people opposed to the project.
When they heard of potential opposition, the two attended a citizens meeting on Aug. 12.
“We’re pretty committed to doing the project,” Behn told the more than 15 people who came to the meeting at the North Star Bowl on Route 100.
Behn told the audience that he intended to put approximately $400,000 into the building to make way for the franchise. Of that amount, $300,000 would fund creating “a vanilla envelope,” a blank canvas for Dunkin’ Donuts to organize its franchise.
“You can’t survive on the gasoline model alone,” said Behn, who owns 115 gas stations, most of which are combined with another convenience store.
While Behn gave thorough answers to people’s questions, he also made himself clear: unless the town didn’t provide the needed permits or the permits came with too many strings, Route 9 would have a Dunkin’ Donuts.
A week before, Silverman started a petition “Reject a Dunkin’ Donuts in the town of Wilmington, Vt” on change.org.
Silverman, who organized the meeting, commended Behn for speaking with citizens and for being “gracious.”
She stressed those opposed to the franchise are “not anti-change.” Personally, she would rather see a local business in the Sandri building.
“We have a great love for this town,” she said.
“The addition of fast food chains to our lovely town would be extremely detrimental to the very thing that creates the allure of our town, its quaint, small-town feel, which is what draws tourists from all over the world,” Silverman wrote in the petition.
“The few jobs created would be ‘small potatoes’ compared to the overall effect it would create, opening the door for fast-food chains, destroying the small-town community feel that both locals and tourists love and cherish,” she wrote.
Based on what she heard at the Aug. 12 meeting, Silverman said that she doubted the citizens’ comments had changed Behn’s mind.
He has the right to put in a business, she acknowledged.
But citizens also have the right to dissent, she said.