Committee considering future image of Wilton

WILTON – The Economic Development Committee has been trying to find solutions for the last year to several problems confronting the town.

The group has been addressing several questions:

• What image does the town want to project?

• What groups of people does it want to attract?

• What will the town look like 20 years from now?

• How does it compare to neighboring towns?

• Why would people want to come here and stay?

On Monday, June 19, Chairman Jen Beck met with a variety of residents – officials, businesspeople and artists – to talk about it informally.

“We did comparisons with Milford and Peterborough,” she said, “and didn’t compare too well in some areas.”

They looked at arts, history, culture and various demographics, Beck said.

“Do we want to attract retirees? Young families? Professionals? Who are the future citizens of Wilton?”

To the surprise of some, Beck said the committee had found more than 200 businesses in town, many home-based.

“The town is eclectic,” she said, “with a larger per capita income than Peterborough.”

That was explained by the fact that Peterborough has large apartment complexes, which Wilton lacks and probably needs.

“We need workforce housing” and affordable rentals, Selectman Kermit Williams said. “We have to think about what’s not here. What we are missing is jobs. Young people need jobs and a place to stay. We’re not growing, but what do we want to grow to?”

It is a kind of “chicken and egg thing,” Beck said. “First, you need the businesses, but they won’t come here without having a workforce. You need a financial incentive.”

The group discussed annual events such as the former Arts and Film Festival, and community days and events sponsored by the Main Street Association and the Wilton Community Center. It was agreed they were good events that attracted people, but didn’t induce people to stay.

Several polls and surveys have indicated the people in town want it stay as it is – a rural community with a friendly atmosphere and a classic New England downtown. Those surveys also point out what the town doesn’t have: a dinner restaurant, adequate parking, public transportation, and a convenience store or gas station on Main Street.

Development along Route 101 West wasn’t favored, as it could become “another Route 101A,” and walkable spaces were more appealing.

Businessman Dick Putnam said they needed to be realistic.

“We are who we are. We need to take what we have and clean it up,” and improve the downtown area, he said.

Putnam noted the need for lodging – there is none between Nashua and Keene except one motel in Peterborough – and suggested trying to attract low-impact, high-tech businesses that could locate off the highway.

Asked to dream a little, the ideas included finishing the Riverwalk behind the Main Street stores with cafes and music venues; bringing back the scenic railroad; getting a good dinner restaurant, tavern or microbrewery, plus a gallery for the area’s many artists; and promoting the schools.

But first, Beck and Putnam said, Wilton people should be introduced to Wilton resources.

Few locals visit the studios at Riverview Mills during their events, silversmith Sussy-Rose Shields said, or patronize the stores there.

“We don’t have a sense of community,” she said.

The discussion will continue. A planning charette is scheduled for Friday, July 21, at Florence Rideout Elementary School, and all are invited to participate.