CHRIS MAYS, Brattleboro Reformer
WILMINGTON -- Gretchen Havreluk believes it’s vital that businesses occupy the empty buildings in town.
"It’s going to make Wilmington a better place to live. It’s going to put more money into the economy and more money into the 1 percent. If more money’s going into that, the stronger we’re going to be able to build the economic vitality," she said. "It’s just opening the businesses. The majority of these buildings have to be renovated."
Since the town hired her as the Economic Development Consultant, Havreluk has been optimistic about efforts aimed at revitalizing the downtown. She had grown up on Coldbrooke Road and gives credit to the community where people "really do care about each other."
There are three ongoing projects aimed at filling vacant buildings in Windham County. Two of which are based in Wilmington.
The regional one, which the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation is behind, includes looking at commercial buildings around the county. The goal is to create an building inventory.
A project approved for the Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies organization’s federally recognized document, known as the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, has made the document’s list of top priorities around the county. It had been submitted to the organization by the downtown group Wilmington Works.
"They want to buy up vacant buildings, restore them and then find people to rent or purchase them," said Havreluk.
The other project in Wilmington involves making calls to business owners who may want space in town. That usually involves engaging with a business that would likely be successful in the downtown.
It is a model that Havreluk has created, in which she calls business owners asking if they would be interested in operating a satellite store. She does not aim to steal businesses away from other communities. She does speak with several businesses at a time, knowing that not every one will end up taking building space.
"There’s been a lot of interest in many of the buildings in the downtown village recently. We’ve seen a couple sales happen, which is a good sign. Then there is speculative interest on several of the other buildings," said Wilmington Town Manager Scott Murphy. "Things are moving, not as fast as we’d like. But that’s how it is. You got to walk before you can run."
He mentioned that this time of year is typically a slow time for commercial real estate.
Havreluk told the Reformer that the Wilmington portion of the vacant building project is currently in its toddler stage.
"I feel like we’re almost there. We need more people. We got a few people purchasing buildings and that’s exciting. But there are still vacant buildings," she said. "And Dot’s having opened up does make the downtown feel more alive because it’s so in the center of the community."
She has been credited by Dot’s owners, Patty and John Reagan, with assisting them find funding to make the reopening happen.
There had been two pop-up stores specializing in gifts made by local artisans. Those stores had been open for the holiday season only though.
Beyond Imagination was one of the last businesses to reopen after the flood and the new coffee shop Folly Foods opened last year. The building where Apres Vous was located is now home to the pizzeria and micropub, Pizzapalooza at 19 South Main St.
"No village or downtown can survive with gaping holes," said Murphy. "It’s like a mouth full of missing teeth."
These are the 12 buildings or spaces that are currently vacant, although some may be under new ownership with plans to reopen:
* Late last year, Poncho’s Wreck was sold at auction as well as the building behind it.
* Another building next door is being renovated for retail purposes.
* At 20 West Main St., there are new owners who met with the Development Review Board on Jan. 20. They want to bring the former Fennessey’sbuilding back to its historical character.
* Across from the Town Offices, there is the Wilmington Home Center. It is for sale and people have been looking at it. Upstairs, the Professional Building is for sale.
* Above the Masonic Hall, there is space which a bank just bought back in foreclosure.
* Further up Main Street, there is a little red building that is for sale.
* There is a building that sits in front of the Reardon Bridge, which Cliff Duncan currently owns. Several inquiries have been made.
* Across the street, the former Bowman Paint building is vacant.
* The Vermont House or 9 West Main St. was purchased last year. There are plans for renovation to take place.
* Across from the Police Department is the Parmelee and Howe building located at 4 North Main St., where a new restaurant will be located.
Havreluk credits the Hermitage Club at Haystack with putting Wilmington on the map.
Another group that has assisted in downtown revitalization efforts has been the Wilmington Fund Vermont. Since Tropical Storm Irene, the nonprofit organization has been crucial to the business community.
* "I don’t think we would be where we are at if it wasn’t for that organization," said Havreluk.
The revolving loan fund that the town has created, offers a very low interest rate to new businesses starting out in town. So far, one business has taken advantage of it. A tax stabilization program has also been instituted by the town.
Historic tax credits allow prospective business owners the chance to restore historic buildings.
Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funding has also been an asset to the town. Business owners can still take advantage of it by inquiring through the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation. The funding is available whether it was the same owner during the flood or a new one. Another round of funding will be announced soon.
Havreluk believes that the improved trail systems will entice business owners to open up shop in Wilmington. Having crosswalks and better sidewalks will also been another important component of the project.
Footwear has been on the minds of those close to the project.
"Everyone is (buying shoes outside of Wilmington)," said Havreluk.
But the question remains: Will that create enough business? Or should it be a shoe and clothing store?
"We don’t want to give people the good resources we have then have them go out of business in a year or two," added Havreluk.
She remembers in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, when business was booming in Wilmington.
"It was pretty dynamic and busy. You could tell by the way the traffic was backed up. And you didn’t mind. I know that I didn’t mind it," Havreluk said. "You knew it was going to get backed up, so you just avoided it or went around it."
When asked about how Wilmington could compete against other towns in resort areas, she was as optimistic as she has been from the beginning of her work with the town.
"We’re going to be a destination of our own," she concluded.