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Wilton downtown grant product of years of work

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Arial view of downtown Wilton. (Photo courtesy of Susan Atwood)
Arial view of downtown Wilton. (Photo courtesy of Susan Atwood)

WILTON – The town was notified Thursday that it has been awarded a $400,000 Downtown Revitalization Grant through the Maine Department of Economic & Community Development. Those funds will go toward streetscape and gateway improvements, as well as funding demolition and cleanup work at the Forster Manufacturing Co. mill.

“We are so excited,” Town Manager Rhonda Irish said Friday. “We were going up against three other great towns. It was very competitive.”

Joan Walton, a community and regional transportation planner with the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments, leads Wilton officials and residents on a "walking tour" in 2010
Joan Walton, a community and regional transportation planner with the Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments, leads Wilton officials and residents on a “walking tour” in 2010

The Community Development Block Grant represents reserved funding at the state level, and is still contingent upon that department receiving federal support. Once awarded, the funds would be matched with $1.3 million in private, local and state investment in the delineated district. Ongoing or planned projects range from roadwork to refurbishing sidewalks to business owners renovating storefronts.

Wilton has been planning a revitalization of its downtown over the past five years, beginning with an Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments walking audit in 2010. A $10,000 planning grant through the DECD led to the creation of a comprehensive study of the needs of the downtown, which was developed by Wright-Pierce and other consultants and finalized in 2012. Using that as a guide, a downtown committee spent the next three years implementing plan action items.

Late last year, the town hired a specialist in community and infrastructure development for $12,000 over a 6-month period, paying for that contract with funds from the Comfort Inn Tax Increment Financing district. Darryl Sterling worked with the downtown committee and met with local business owners, and assisted town officials, committee members and business owners in writing the Downtown Revitalization Grant application.

Darryl Sterling addresses residents at Tuesday's public hearing as Town Manager Rhonda Irish and Selectboard Chair D. Scott Taylor hold a map showing the district that will benefit from Community Development Block Grant funding. (Photo by Mt. Blue TV)
Darryl Sterling addresses residents at a public hearing as Town Manager Rhonda Irish and Selectboard Chair D. Scott Taylor hold a map showing the district that will benefit from Community Development Block Grant funding.

At a special town meeting on Dec. 16, residents voted to designate an L-shaped section of the town as “slum and blight,” in order to meet the criteria of the CDBG downtown revitalization grant program. The slum and blight designation allowed Wilton to apply for CDBG funds following a change in how the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development calculates the percentage of low- to moderate-income households in towns. Fifty-one percent of households must be low- to moderate-income to allow a town to be eligible for Community Development Block Grant funding. The switch to the American Community Survey from the formerly-used U.S. Census meant that Wilton falls short by 2 percent.

The district contains elements such as vacant buildings, deteriorating or non-contiguous sidewalks, uneven steps, old street lights and of course the partially-demolished Forster mill, all of which fall within the standards of slum and blight. Geographically, the district consists of an area along Main Street from Academy Hill School to Wilson Lake and from Rt. 2 along Depot Street to the school.

The funds can be used within the district, and will augment several ongoing projects. One of strongest parts of Wilton’s application, Irish said Friday, was in the large amount of matching funds the town could provide. The town exceeded the $100,000 minimum with approximately $1.3 million in ongoing or planned construction, renovation or repair projects.

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Store manager Jessi Sawyer cuts the ribbon in front of the Wilton Hardware Store on May 8. Owner Jeff Chaisson’s work throughout the downtown counted toward the town’s local match for the grant.

Among these is the Maine Department of Transportation $75,000 paving project down Main and Depot Street, as well as the town’s rehabilitation of segments of downtown sidewalks. The town would also be using TIF funds to pay for engineering and planning work, Irish noted, in addition to Sterling’s contract.

Private investment includes the renovation at the Barclaycard U.S. call center in the Western Maine Development LLC’s Business & Technology Center, the installation of apartments on the top floor of the Bass-Wilson building, the planned renovation of the future Western Maine Play Museum, the improvements to the Chaisson Properties and the Expenet/Wilson Properties buildings and reopening of the Wilton Hardware Store, the reopening of the Beauty Mark Salon, improvements to Byron Staples’ and Nancy Merrow’s property, and improvements at the Wilton Free Public Library.

“We far exceeded the match,” Irish said.

The funds will be used to make streetscape improvements, which range from amenities such as signs and benches to better sidewalks and lighting to improved Americans with Disability Act access. Lighting was a particularly expensive element, Irish noted. The money can also be used at the so-called “gateways” to the district, such as along Depot Street.

The Forster Mill on Depot Street.
The Forster Mill on Depot Street.

Standing in the middle of the Depot Street gateway is the Forster mill, which the town acquired through the foreclosure process in March. While the funding is not sufficient to demolish the entire building, a portion may be enough to take down a free-standing wall that overlooks the stream. That wall was abandoned after demolition was abruptly halted in 2011 following the discovery of asbestos in the building, and has become one of the biggest local concerns with the site in terms of safety and being an eyesore. Funds could also be used to clean up some of the debris strewn across the ground.

Any work would need to wait for assessments being conducted by Ransom Consulting, Inc. The environmental engineering firm is conducting a Department of Environmental Protection-funded Phase I assessment and Hazardous Waste Material inventory in the mill. Given the history of the site, a more-extensive Phase II assessment will also likely be required.

According to Irish, the town is now beginning the project development and environmental review stage of the application process. Terry Ann Holden from the DECD has been appointed the program development manager.

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