WILMINGTON—The Vermont Downtown Action Team visited Wilmington last week to assess how to buoy the town after hard economic times and substantial flooding from Tropical Storm Irene two years ago.
Irene flooded most of downtown Wilmington in August 2011 as the Deerfield River overflowed its banks and sent about six feet of water into the heart of the village.
The town, businesses, and residents have worked non-stop since then to rebuild. The Federal Emergency Management Agency awarded Wilmington long-term recovery resources. Through this process, community members completed projects.
Many businesses have since reopened but as of the second anniversary of Irene, some 10 storefronts in the modest downtown remained shuttered.
The business owners, town officials, and community members identified multiple areas of need in three days of meetings. The V-DAT team presented its findings to the town on Sept. 13.
Not all these needs could be addressed by the V-DAT team, the reports authors said.
During their presentation on Friday, the team organized the information around five key themes, said urban planner Tripp Muldrow of Arnett Muldrow & Associates of Greenville, S.C.
They included cultivating the market by filling vacant spaces with temporary art until tenants are found; enhancing the public’s experience when visiting, living, or working in downtown; building improvements; marketing Wilmington as part of a “dynamic region”; and motivating investment in the area with organization and funding techniques.
Muldrow said Wilmington participated in a ZIP code survey this month. The survey collected 687 customer visits. Of those visits, 406 unique American zip codes representing 30 states were recorded. Three foreign countries were also represented.
For its size, Wilmington receives a huge amount of visitors in a one-week period, said Muldrow.
“You have the second-lowest amount of local traffic in a community [that] I’ve experienced,” said Muldrow, who added that he has conducted 200 similar ZIP code surveys.
About 12 percent of the visitors recorded a local ZIP code, he continued. “Even in the most robust tourism” area, locals account for 20 to 30 percent of visitors.
Even when combined with neighboring communities such as Whitingham, Halifax, and Dover, locals accounted for less than a quarter of the traffic to Wilmington.
“We can view that as a glass half-full or a glass half-empty,” said Muldrow. “There’s an opportunity before this community [to develop businesses] that appeal both to the local and to the visitor in the core area of the village.”
Visitors from New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts respectively made up the other significant portion of visitors.
The remaining 22 percent of ZIP codes came from a “who’s who of the best ZIP codes” in the country, including Beverly Hills, Calif., Colorado Springs, Colo., and Palm Beach, Fla.
“[The ZIP codes] are emblematic of consumers of considerable means and considerable sophistication,” said Muldrow.
Key opportunities for business clusters for Wilmington includes home furnishings, dining, and outdoor equipment.
Housing in Wilmington is a “neat” situation, said Muldrow. One in four houses is locally owned and occupied, while three out of four houses are for rent.
This unusual situation means that a lot of people need home furnishings, he explained.
Outdoor equipment is a market with room to grow, he said. Most of the existing outdoor shops cater to winter activities. Muldrow suggested developing businesses that catered to other seasons to fill in the market.
Specialty foods also represents a market that could take off in Wilmington.
And, he said, never underestimate the needs of the second home market, where here, some 75 percent of housing units are second homes.
Stationary stores could serve both the local and visitor communities, he suggested.
The team’s suggestions for next steps included enticing temporary “pop up” businesses — retailers anchored in a strong presence elsewhere but who can set up shop in Wilmington on the fly, filling vacancies during peak times or during a search for a full-time tenant.
Wilmington should continue working with Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategy (SeVEDS) to develop co-working areas to entice more full-time entrepreneur residents and provide an amenity to second homeowners, Muldrow said.
V-DAT also suggested identifying funding for economic development and establishing performance measures that track investment.
The team took a few minutes to highlight Wilmington’s accomplishments and hard work, such as raising the $4 million in public and private investment for Irene-related recovery, the village center plan developed by graduate students in landscape planning and design from the Conway School in Conway, Mass., being awarded a downtown designation from the Vermont Department of Housing and Community Development’s Downtown Designation Program, the success of its beautification program, and its expanded parking lot and public space built with about 1,000 hours of volunteer efforts.
A crucial aspect to downtown revitalization is implementing a preventative maintenance plan for the buildings. Small fixes can prevent deeper damage from taking root, said one of the team members during his presentation.
Wilmington also has struggled with branding, report authors said. The study found that when branding here caters to tourism goals — such as calling the area The Mount Snow Valley, after a local business — it leaves out locals, and vice versa.
Last Friday, the V-DAT team presented a branding statement that knit together the town’s history with its future, and its environment with its commerce, and welcomed locals and visitors home with a refrain of “In the Valley.”
“It makes you a piece of the whole [region] and does so in your own vernacular,” said Muldrow.
The team also presented a color scheme and typeface for the overall branding, and a tagline — “Wilmington, In the Valley.”
One audience member noted that “the Valley” was not as unique as “the Deerfield River Valley.”
Going forward, the team suggested funding options for completing projects. Some great funding structures already exist, said Muldrow, such as the Wilmington Fund and the 1-percent option tax.
Muldrow spoke about the sense of volunteerism in the community, suggesting the town turn public service projects into social activities that also return value to the volunteers.