WILMINGTON—Under a green-and-white banner reading “rebuilddots.com,” owners Patty and John Reagan told an audience resembling a crowd — one the size of the downtown icon’s Sunday-brunch regulars — that Dot’s Restaurant will reopen this fall.
The 1800s-era building weathered Tropical Storm Irene’s Aug. 28 floods but suffered substantial foundation damage. The restaurant’s future remained uncertain.
A July-like spring sun warmed the streets of downtown Wilmington on Monday, nearly seven months after Irene’s floodwaters rushed through the town’s main business center.
Yarn from the local yarn shop, piping, and plastic bags still cling to the bushes lining the now-calm Deerfield River as it winds through town past boarded-up basements and gutted buildings.
“[Dot’s] drew the action in the center of town,” said resident Carlotta Gladding, who stood waiting for the Reagans’ announcement.
Gladding said she missed the restaurant’s burritos, famous chili, and breakfasts. She also missed driving by on the weekends and seeing the crowds waiting for tables.
The town called the Reagans two days before Irene stormed down on Vermont. The couple completed the “normal pick up” of the riverside restaurant’s basement.
The morning of Aug. 28, however, Patty Reagan said she noticed the Deerfield rising faster than normal. The couple decided to send staff and customers home and closed the restaurant.
The Reagans stayed behind, pulling the historic photos of waitresses and the diner from the walls and securing the building. They then drove Patty’s car up nearby Ray Hill.
By the time they returned, floodwaters surrounded Dot’s. The floodwaters rose to the second floor.
“There was nothing to do but watch,” she said.
“It [renovating] is not going to be easy,” said Patty Reagan. “It will take the whole community.”
John Reagan bought Dot’s in 1980. Patty arrived behind the lunch counter in 1985, later marrying John.
Before the project is over, Patty Reagan said, the building will undergo flood-proofing and be made accessible to the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Inside, contractors will move the kitchen, which used to overlook the river, to the rear of the building. A seating area will take over the river view.
The Reagans anticipate returning to a breakfast and lunch schedule, accompanied by four nights of serving dinner.
Flood insurance won’t cover the estimated $800,000 project, so the Reagans have turned to local foundations for fundraising.
“Band-aids aren’t going to fix this building,” said Patty Reagan.
The Preservation Trust of Vermont, the Wilmington Fund, and The Friends of Deerfield Valley have committed to funding the renovation.
According to Paul Bruhn, executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, the project still has about $250,000 to raise. Along with individual donors, the Wilmington Fund has donated $50,000, and the Friends of Deerfield Valley has promised to raise another $100,000. Donations to the project are tax deductible.
Patty Reagan said that without the donations the renovation would have remained unimaginable. If the couple had invested their own capital, she said, they would never see retirement, and the business’ resale price would skyrocket beyond what most potential buyers could afford.
“Anyone who could afford [the business] wouldn’t want to work that hard,” she said.
The couple hopes to mentor another young couple in the business when it comes time to retire.
Patty Reagan said that the couple considered throwing in the towel but did not want to give up their commitment to the community.
“[The Reagans] have been on a long, twisty, turn-y road, but in the end they really made this decision for the community,” said Bruhn.
The Preservation Trust, which has the mission of helping to maintain Vermont’s village centers, will help guide the Reagans during the renovation process and act as the umbrella nonprofit for individuals looking to make donations.
A successful community needs gathering places that serve its whole population. This intersection of all facets of a community fulfills an important role of giving residents a place, one where they can connect, meet, debate, even catch up on the weather.
People require what Bruhn calls a “third place” to keep them engaged with their community. The common first and second places are the their homes and work places, respectively.
The third place should be a place like a general store, post office, bookstore, or diner where people can connect with neighbors they wouldn’t normally encounter.
“Wilmington is lucky that Bartleby’s Books rebuilt and rebuilt quickly [after Irene],” he said.
And this is how communities stay viable, said Bruhn. If a village is built on places “only for some,” then it’s not a community but a subdivision.
“Dot’s is a quintessential gathering place,” said Bruhn.
The restaurant served locals and visitors, people from different economic sectors, and customers spanning generations.
Bruhn said that Dot’s will receive flood-proofing measures — like raising the building two feet — that can help it withstand another event like Irene.
In response to the often asked post-Irene question “why don’t towns like Wilmington just move the downtown?” Bruhn said that although an important question, dismantling the state’s downtowns “would change Vermont’s face dramatically.”
The Preservation Trust of Vermont has received donations from individuals and foundations to help towns rebuild after Irene, including The Newman Foundation and the The Richard Davoud Donchian Foundation.
The extra funds have allowed the trust to award a wide range of small ($5,000 to $10,000) grants to more than 20 businesses and nonprofits.
They haven’t solved Vermonters’ problems, but the money has helped ease their burdens, he said.
State and local dignitaries attended the Reagans’ announcement Monday, including Gov. Peter Shumlin, Patricia Moulton Powden, deputy Secretary of the Agency of Commerce & Community Development, and state Rep. Ann Manwaring, D-Wilmington.
Shumlin, who said he was a fan of Dot’s chili, described the Reagans’ commitment to reopen as “no better example of the rebuilding in Vermont.”
To the people of Wilmington he said, “I’m proud of all of you. In Wilmington, you find the strength, you find the love, you find the appreciation that holds Vermonters together.”