Wilton economic forum

WILTON – The town has a lot of good points and potential for growth, but residents should take a new, hard, look at how they want the town to grow. Times have changed and the old assumptions might not work anymore. There are a lot of challenges to be faced and dealt with.

That was the general consensus after a discussion on Oct. 29 of the town’s economic future, held by the Planning Board as part of their update of the town’s Master Plan. Jill Longval of the Nashua Regional Planning Commission led the discussion. About two dozen residents attended the 90 minute forum at the town hall.

There are a lot of strengths and opportunities, residents said. The Town Hall Theater draws a large number of people to the downtown, where they have good restaurants, everything within easy walking distance, free parking, and a “quaint Main Street” with its granite walls and “interesting architecture.”

Out-of-towners are also drawn by Frye’s Measure Mill, Curtis Farm Outdoor Weddings, the Waldorf schools, Andy’s Summer Playhouse, the artists’ studios at Riverview Mills, hiking opportunities at Sheldrick Forest and the Heald Tract.

There is potential for development along Route 101, an educated and experienced work force, and a good quality of life.

However, those same people said, while there is a lot of traffic on the by-pass, little is diverted into the downtown.

“People don’t know we’re here,” Selectman Kermit Williams said. There are no signs along the highway for businesses.

“The town needs a sense of identity,” ROAM Cafe owner Cheryl Schaefer said. “We need a calendar of events, all of the organizations.” She suggested “flags and signs” to direct people to the downtown. “We need a downtown promotion.” She offered to divert some of her advertising budget to the effort.

Wilton needs to become a destination, several said. The old model of small retail stores won’t work, they can’t compete with the big boxes. Wilton needs to promote the arts, have more than one antique store, promote the local agriculture.

Main Street is now isolated from the rest of the town and that needs to change.

David McBee, president of the Wilton Main Street Association, said, “Marketing is everyone’s responsibility. We need a vision for Main Street, bring in more professional services rather than the traditional retail. Downtown isn’t going to be what it used to be.”

Main Street Association, he added, “is no longer obligated to think just Main Street. We can expand the concept of what we are. We need economic stimulus.” But it is a non-profit and needs community support.

He noted the empty spaces on Main Street; the former Harwood’s Market, the bank building, the convenience store. “We need a downtown to support.”

Current store hours are limited. Some said Main Street needs a convenience store, a drug store, and better parking.

“There is little support by townspeople for local business,” long-time garage owner Joe Poisson said. “We need more public gatherings” such as the recent Old Home Days.

Asked about a proposed food co-op, organizers said it is still being considered, but there are problems to overcome and it may have to go elsewhere.

“We need to focus on local foods,” Williams said, naming the farmers’ market and several businesses that use local products.

Commercial development along Route 101 was mentioned several times, but in order to promote the area, water and sewer lines would have to be extended, and zoning restrictions would have to eased.

“(The process) needs to streamlined,” town moderator Bill Keefe said. “A retail business moving into (an established) retail space should be able to do it” without months of hearings.

Realtor Sam Proctor agreed. “Zoning regulations are burdensome. The open space regulation is too restrictive” for business and industry.

Some mentioned there are some in town that who want it to remain a bedroom community.

There is a “disconnect between segments of the population,” several suggested, as well as public apathy and poor attendance at town meetings. There is a lack of support for the Main Street Association. Better communication is needed as few people check the town website.

“We need a town crier,” one resident said. The town government needs to get more involved.

While the population is well educated, it is aging. Many noted there is little to keep young people in town, few affordable apartments, little to do.

Some people apparently have a poor perception of the school system, but the new Wilton-Lyndeborough Elementary School, due to open next year, could help with that.

It was noted that the Souhegan Valley Boys and Girls Club in planning to expand into Wilton.

Better and faster Internet service is on the horizon.

A high school drop-in center, a skateboard park, a gathering place, would all be helpful, but more is needed.

The Planning Board will continue discussions at their next two work sessions, held on the first Wednesday of the month. All interested people are invited to attend.