Wilton residents given suggestions to improve town

Photo by JESSIE SALISBURY The Souhegan River, called “Wilton’s major resource,” as seen from the Route 31 bridge over Stoney Brook. The much discussed old railroad bridges are in the background.

WILTON – “Wilton is a unique and beautiful place,” Plan NH spokesman Ron Dapice said. “The community is amazing.”

His remarks began the assessment of the town after two days of intense study and evaluation by the professional group, which began Friday morning, July 21, with a walking tour of the town. The visit included a session with town officials, two gatherings of townspeople for comment, and then their evaluation of the materials.

Each member of the team presented recommendations and stressed they weren’t there to tell people what to do, but just to give suggestions to think about.

On Friday, two sessions drew about 100 people who were asked, What do you see here now? What would you like to see?

What the residents saw were several treasures, including the Town Hall Theater, a beautiful stretch of the Souhegan River, a wide variety of artists and a quiet, safe town with a lot of potential.

What they would like to see is a dinner restaurant, a pub or tavern, a place to gather before and after a movie; better parking; more businesses; affordable housing; better communication among departments and with the wider area; and a return of the Scenic Railroad.

There is no general store on Main Street. Properties are underused. Walking isn’t convenient. The school buildings need to be better used by the community.

The professionals took all of that and made their suggestions:

• Start small and work with who you are and what you have.

• Have a plan and follow it.

• Choose a brand and stick with it.

• Decide who you are selling yourself to.

• Make the most of your unique assets: the river, the old railroad bridges, a network of hiking trails, the arts community and a rich history.

• Parking is, and will continue to be, a problem, but make it easier to walk around. A suggestion: Eliminate the parallel parking along the wall and add a sidewalk. Make parking head-in and eliminate the turn around the dummy. Add a “bump-out” by the park to give people a place to sit and enjoy an ice cream.

• The new Riverwalk by the police station is great, but add a pedestrian bridge to the Wilton Pizza House to make a loop rather than a dead end. And give them outside dining. There are problems with continuing the walk down the river to Main Street Park, but it could be done with the cooperation of the store owners, addition of decks and steps down from the park. The views are great of the old railroad bridge.

• The parking area by Riverview Mills should be better utilized and the artists made more a part of the community.

• There are safety concerns for pedestrians and bicycles. Sidewalks could be improved to the library, schools, Carnival Hill and to Riverview Mills and the elderly housing.

– Make some improvements to Monument Park.

– The vacant bank building has possibilities, as does the underused Wilton Falls Building.

– There should be signs drawing people off Route 101 into downtown and better signage when they get there. But celebrate that “We aren’t 101A.”

– Downtown businesses could better coordinate their hours of operation, compile a directory and have a more positive appearance online.

– Zoning ordinances need to be revised to be more business friendly: Change the parking requirements; eliminate change-of-use language and allow changes to be administered by the code officer and not the Planning Board; eliminate impact fees; reduce size requirements and allow for 100 percent lot coverage.

– Reimagine downtown, architect Kyle Barker said. No overhead power lines, and add murals to blank brick walls, such as at Main Street Park. “Put people first,” he said.

“Pop-ups” were suggested, art galleries, beer gardens, any event that lasts only a day or two “to try things out, offer something different. See what works.”

“You’ve given us some brilliant ideas,” Selectman Kermit Williams said. “You’ve done a wonderful job.”

School Board Chairman Harry Daily added, “There is some real work ahead of us – layering all these things,” working from the inside out and making sure projects are made the most of.

Jen Beck, head of the Wilton Economic Development Committee, which sponsored the charrette, sought volunteers from among the attendees.

“Do you want to help?” she asked. “There’s a sign-up sheet. Do you have an idea? Tell us about it. This will take everybody to achieve.”

A final written report and analysis will be received in the next four to six weeks.

Plan NH is a nonprofit association of professional planners formed in 1989. It’s based in Portsmouth, but operates statewide by invitation. Wilton’s charrette was their 52nd charrette.

The group works on the “built environment,” Dapice said, to help give a town a unique identity, attract new businesses, improve downtowns and help build a future.”

They can be found on-line at Plan NH.