Brattleboro Reformer: For U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, Wilmington Exemplifies Rural America
A visit here Wednesday served as a reminder to U.S. Rep. Peter Welch of the countryside communities that need a hand in order to prosper.
"We should be reinvesting in rural America," the Vermont Democrat told members of the Old School Enrichment Council at the former Twin Valley High School, which they are turning into a community center. "That should be the priority."
Welch recalled coming to Wilmington after Tropical Storm Irene devastated the downtown in August 2011.
"You were down here quite a bit. We appreciate that," Select Board member Ann Manwaring told Welch. "We're back."
A downtown designation for Wilmington was recently renewed by the Vermont Downtown Program for another five years.
That has been "very positive for us," said Gretchen Havreluk, Wilmington's economic development consultant.
Welch said the federal tax credits available in such programs are crucial for communities and are preserved in the tax bill.
Havreluk is looking to find money to help fill vacant buildings around town. Manwaring said the community center is "going to need an infusion of money."
Council member Nicki Steel invited Welch to return once some planned renovations at the community center are complete. The town has provided funding for a roof, and a grant was recently secured for upgrading the entryway.
The plan is to fill vacant rooms with nonprofits, educational groups and artists. Currently, the Windham Southwest Supervisory Union rents office space in the building and the Twin Valley school district leases the gym and field.
Council member Meg Streeter hopes the post office will become a tenant. Council member Janet Boyd said her group would love to see adult education and workforce training offered.
Havreluk called the community center "a huge nut" to crack.
"It could be really beautiful," Streeter told Welch. "We're working out the details."
Inside the old school, the congressman met men and women playing pickleball in the gym. Other groups also use the space for activities. The gym lights have been swapped with energy-efficient bulbs and there are plans to replace the hardwood floor.
Streeter said the price to purchase the building from the Wilmington School District — $1 — was "right."
"We only need $2.5 million to fix it up," added Boyd.
Welch did not take Route 100 for the trip. But town officials told him about its deteriorating condition, with potholes causing vehicle damage and driver frustration. Town Manager Scott Tucker said the scenic byway brings travelers to several ski areas in the state.
"It's always a fight for revenue," Welch said regarding infrastructure upgrades. "I'll keep working on it."
He also is part of a bipartisan rural caucus advocating to bring high-speed, affordable internet to rural areas. He said no economic argument was needed for expanding electricity to rural towns in the 1930s, so he is not sure why one is needed now in the case of broadband.
Havreluk told Welch that small businesses are paying high fees for high-quality internet service. Town Treasurer Christine Richter said the police department pays $400 a month for fiber optic cable.
The two town officials worry that the end of Vanu CoverageCo would negatively affect cell service for some local customers. Other local communities expected to feel the effect include Halifax, Jamaica, Readsboro, Newfane, Townshend and Whitingham, according to an article on VTDigger.com.
"That's terrible," said Welch.
Havreluk said she is working with the U.S. Economic Development Administration to help build a sewer line out to barns where Honora Winery is planning a brewpub and the Southwestern Vermont Medical Center's Deerfield Valley campus is set to expand.
Havreluk praised improvement projects at Mount Snow in West Dover made possible bv EB-5 program funding. The federal program grants immigrants residency for investing and requires job creation. But fraud alleged in the program at Jay Peak has put a dark cloud over it in Vermont. Mount Snow has created its own regional EB-5 center and will no longer use the state's center.
"There's something fundamentally sketchy about it," said Welch, who nevertheless continues to support the program because he said it helped communities and created jobs after the recession.
Havreluk told him, "It's been good for this valley."
Meg Staloff, downtown organization Wilmington Works program coordinator, said local, state and federal groups have had "a great partnership" when it came to rebuilding the town after Irene.
Welch saw new sidewalks and a pedestrian bridge over the Deerfield River connecting to trail networks. He also grabbed lunch from Dot's Restaurant, which has become known as a symbol of post-flood reconstruction efforts.