Wilton downtown plan ‘needed’

WILTON – The downtown area needs a new plan for economic development, one that encompasses many of the proposals that came out of the Plan N.H. Design Charette in July.

On Feb. 7, Jennifer Beck, chairman of the Economic Development Committee, will meet with the Planning Board to formally request that a cross-functional task force be created to study the downtown area and come up with recommendations. She would like that task force to be composed of specialists in various areas.

While the Planning Board is charged with that type of planning, the EDC says the scope of the design is wider than that, that the redesigning requires input from many agencies.

“The Planning Board recognizes we need to study the whole downtown commercial district and update the permitted uses and zoning,” she said last week. “All of the recommendations of Plan N.H. on parking, zoning, green space, signage, will be reviewed and updated, to reflect what the residents and merchants have told us they need and want. We need to look at trends in entertainment and retail, see what other towns are doing, what has worked for them.”

The Economic Development Committee is a sanctioned, ad hoc panel under the Board of Selectmen. They make recommendations to, and work with, other boards and commissions. They do not hold a budget.

Over the past year, the EDC has conducted several town-wide polls.

“We know that people want to keep this a small rural town,” Beck said. “The downtown village is squeezed between the river and a steep hill, and can’t be enlarged. We have to protect and make use of what we have.”

A study in July showed that residents would like a general convenience store on Main Street with local food, a dinner restaurant, a pub or tavern.

“And they want more services,” she said. However, people do not want the Route 101 west corridor “to become another 101A.” EDC wants to concentrate resident services in the downtown area to encourage shopping and attract visitors.

Repurposing existing storefronts is a priority. The empty Santander Bank (it still says Wilton National Bank on the front) is an example. Several suggestions have been made.

The highest priority, however, is enacting an ordinance to restrict residences at street level in buildings on Main Street. One building already has been converted. Mixed use is a good thing, but reserving the first floor for commercial purposes ensures the scarce spaces along Main Street are for everyone’s benefit.

“We were ready to propose that change this year at the town meeting,” Beck said, “but withdrew the plan, because it isn’t as simple as that. There are a lot of effects to consider. It needs to be part of a larger plan.”

What Beck doesn’t want, she said, “Is to create an adversarial atmosphere between boards. Boards and commissions aren’t supposed to further their own agendas. Sometimes that is hard, but we spent a year doing research and asking residents to engage in designing the community’s future.

Everyone needs to work together.”

The EDC’s two top priorities right now are Phase 2 of the River Walk and a signage strategy to attract people to the downtown; creating a logo, an identity of some type, for the town, something that can be used to advertise the town as a place to visit and to move to.

“We need an event unique to Wilton,” she said.

“Like the Arts and Film Festival from some years ago. Something that will appeal to everyone. We need to take advantage of our existing treasures, the Town Hall Theater, Frye’s Measure Mill, Andy’s Summer Playhouse.”

Expanding the River Walk has two parts: Completing the area at the west end, connecting the new park by the police station to Forest Street with some type of pedestrian bridge.

Improving the sidewalk along Forest Street, landscaping Monument Park and making it easier to walk from the parking lot to Main Street are other goals.

NRPC’s Safe Route to School project has identified two safety concerns.

The Plan N.H. Charette produced 32 projects. Those have been evaluated by the Nashua Regional Planning Commission for feasibility and each has been given a priority listing of high, medium or low. The high priority projects include new signage at the town’s entrances on Route 101, the Riverwalk extension, improving marketing and communications to attract new businesses, including creating a brochure and a town logo.

“I need a lot of bodies and minds,” Beck said.

For information, or to volunteer, email ecodev@wiltonnh.org.