“There are a lot of balls in the air,” said Bill Colvin, who will soon be leaving as the town’s economic development consultant. Colvin noted that the town is involved in the bitown effort with Dover, moving forward with projects under the Mullin Plan, working on new projects identified under the FEMA Long Term Recovery process, and considering applying for the state’s Downtown Designation program. “And I think you all know that the joint Bennington/Windham Economic Development Administration application went in this week,” he said. “There will be two positions, one based in Wilmington. Someone will need to regularly liaise with that position to keep projects moving forward with Wilmington in mind.”
Colvin offered the board a plan for a full-time economic development coordinator. “I’m not making a strong recommendation either way,” he told board members. “This is largely modeled on the bitown position, with more Wilmington-centric language. If the community is going to pursue downtown designation, it would be great to have a staff person here to help Scott (Murphy, Wilmington Town Manager) and to serve as coordinator of the volunteer board.”
Board member Meg Streeter said the board needed to decide how they’ll move forward soon. “Bill is moving on, and we do need to make a decision,” she said. “We have $40,000 budgeted for salary and benefits, and $10,000 for long-term economic development projects and $2,500 for short term projects. It’s the same budget we’ve had, and Bill has made it work well.”
“But it has been a struggle to do it in 12 to 15 hours per week,” Colvin said. “There are so many balls in the air, having someone focusing on it day in and day out has its advantages.” Colvin said the existing budget might not pay for a seasoned economic development professional, but it might be enough for someone at a more junior level. “Maybe start with a three- or four-day FTE,” he suggested.
Board member Susie Haughwout asked about hiring another consultant, or hiring someone at less than full time. “I’d rather not create a full-time position,” she said. “I’d rather staff it and see where it goes. It’s government, if you create something full-time, it expands to fill the position.”
In other discussions, the board met with John Shanahan, the executive director of the Better Bennington Corporation, the nonprofit that oversees Bennington’s downtown program under the state’s Downtown Designation. Shanahan described how the program has worked in Bennington, and answered board members’ questions.
Shanahan said his organization is funded through memberships, sponsorships, and through a special tax assessment on property within the designated downtown. He said the tax assessment accounts for 60% to 65% of his total budget of about $120,000. But he said other towns fund their programs in different ways – some with lower or higher budgets. He noted that Wilmington could decide to fund their program with revenue from their 1% local option tax, set to go into effect on July 1, or through a budget line item. But he said it was important that the program isn’t funded solely by voluntary contributions. “We were not designed to focus on fundraising,” he said. “Everything we do has to benefit those in the district.”
Shanahan added that, ultimately, downtown designation and the work of the downtown group benefits the entire community. “If the downtown is well-maintained and healthy, you’ll have a healthy community.” Initially, however, he said that the program could be run at a very low cost with no executive director, depending on volunteers to do all of the work.
Shanahan said one of the major benefits of the program is that it takes a lot of responsibility off the shoulders of selectboard members. “You’ll have a group designated to do a lot of that,” he said. “If you’re looking to do some work downtown, you can have the downtown design committee submit a proposal. Our design committee works with lighting, benches, wastebaskets, planters, areas that need to be repaired, and crosswalks.”
Murphy said one of the benefits for Wilmington would be the coordination of groups that are already organized. “The other major benefit is the grant possibilities,” he said.
Murphy said the next step would be to get a consensus, and move forward with the application process. Some board members expressed concern about the Windham Regional Commission’s price of $15,000 for putting together the application, but Murphy suggested that the town could do the work with help from other downtown designees, or the board could apply for a Vermont Foundation grant or a municipal planning grant to cover WRC’s cost. “Paying is probably less important than getting the first steps started,” Murphy said.
Selectboard chair Tom Consolino noted that some of the work is already done, and some of the required documents and regulations are already in place. “The harder part is where do we come up with a two- or three-year plan and budget for improvements,” he said. “We can get help from the other 25 downtown designees and the coordinator of the state’s program.”
Still hesitant, however, board members asked Murphy to bring a proposal with various options and costs to the next meeting.
In ongoing matters, Murphy told board members that a recent visit from Gov. Peter Shumlin appears to have greased the wheels on action to repair a section of the South Main Street floodwall that was damaged. “When the governor came down it sparked some activity, and now we have several permits in hand,” Murphy said.
Before the governor’s visit, the town had difficulty obtaining even “exploratory” permits to assess the damage on the South Main Street floodwall. The town now has, not only exploratory permits, but permits for the repair work and work in and around the South Main Street floodwall, permits to alter a pool created by Tropical Storm Irene that has restricted water flow, permits to work on the Crafts Inn river wall, and permits for exploratory work farther downriver.