The evening kicked off at the Hermitage Club with an exclusive dinner with special guest, actress Meryl Streep. Also in attendance were Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin and Congressman Peter Welch. The fundraising dinner was sold out, with 115 guests paying between $1,000 and $5,000 per plate. Donors paying for the $2,500 and $5,000 plates also had their photos taken with Streep.
Streep was at the event at the behest of her friend, Wilmington Fund VT founder and president Dan Kilmurray. Kilmurray says he has known Streep’s family for years. “Her brother and I met and became dear friends when I was about 18,” Kilmurray said. “I met her when she graduated from Vassar. When I was in the process of launching this fundraising event, I asked her if she would help.”
During an after-dinner chat hosted by Kilmurray’s wife and co-founder of Wilmington Fund VT, Tamara Kilmurray, Streep said that one of the reasons she was willing to help the Wilmington Fund was because she was familiar with the town. After she left Dartmouth College for Vassar, she said, she continued to travel between the two colleges on trips to visit her boyfriend at Dartmouth. “Wilmington was my halfway point,” she said. “I used to stop at a little ice cream place on Route 9 that isn’t there anymore (Gene’s KreeMee).”
Streep also found an unexpected connection to the area. Rep. Ann Manwaring told her that the bottles of Vermont maple syrup on the tables were donated by local business owner Ed Metcalfe, who had attended elementary school with Streep. “Oh, little Eddie Metcalfe?” Streep said. “Is he here?” But Metcalfe wasn’t in attendance.
In a brief address to donors, Rep. Peter Welch recalled the devastation he saw in Wilmington on his first visit after Tropical Storm Irene. “I remember talking to Steve Butler at North Star Bowl, where he showed me the mud line on the wall that marked the high point of the flood.”
Shumlin also recalled his first visit to the town, just hours after flood waters receded, when he flew in by helicopter with Gen. Michael Dubie. At that time, valley towns were still virtually cut off from the rest of the state because all of the major routes had been washed out.
In thanking those who attended the dinner, Kilmurray remarked that Wilmington has made a lot of progress in its recovery from the flood. He introduced John and Patty Reagan, who are nearing completion of an extensive rebuild of their downtown landmark, Dot’s Restaurant. Kilmurray also introduced Marsha and Barry Reardon, who donated the walking bridge in Wilmington Village, which ties the new village trail to a riverside trail that will terminate at the Fairview Avenue picnic area.
The dinner was followed by an outdoor concert by local musician Colby Dix and headliner Joan Osborne. Kilmurray said the concert attracted another 175 donors, who paid $100 per ticket.
Although the fund hasn’t released any figures from the fundraiser, Kilmurray and other board members say they’re “very pleased” with the success of the evening. “We were blessed with the weather,” said Kilmurray. “Everything went perfectly. We had a lot riding on this, and it was important to meet our goals and financial commitments. It turned out to be very successful.” Kilmurray credited Hermitage innkeeper Steve O’Hern and event manager Rebecca Lewis for much of the evening’s success. “It would have been impossible to put on that event without them.”
Kilmurray says it was time for a fundraiser for which the proceeds hadn’t been earmarked for a specific project. When he and his wife started the fund, the initial fundraising was done through a letter he sent out to friends, asking for their help in supporting the town that had just been devastated by flooding. A second fundraiser, a barbecue, raised money specifically to keep supporting Dot’s Restaurant.
Although Kilmurray says the event might have yielded more donations if it had been held in Greenwich, CT, he said it was important to have the event in Vermont, not only to bring people into the area, but also to make the event accessible to people in the valley. Although the cost of donations to the dinner might have been out of the question for many local residents, the concert was priced so that locals could also attend – and there were many more local faces in the crowd at the concert.
“I really wanted this to happen in Vermont,” Kilmurray says. “I wanted people in the area to be able to come and enjoy the concert, to be able to come and have a good evening. I wanted it to be a rallying cry for the town; for everyone who has been through so much.”
But Kilmurray says he realizes that not everyone in the valley could afford to go to one of the events.
In addition to physical recovery work, the fund also strongly supports businesses and general economic development. To that end, the fund has contributed to the creation of the municipal parking lot on West Main Street, the Moving Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, and Wilmington Works, the nonprofit organization created as part of the Wilmington Downtown Designation program.
Although flood cleanup and the town’s physical recovery may be well underway, Kilmurray says there’s still a lot for the fund to do – which includes getting businesses into empty buildings. “There are still a lot of essential services that don’t exist – there’s no coffee shop, no bakery. There’s a ton of work to be done, and our future is to get the essential services back into the village. It would be nice to declare victory, but we’re just a third of the way there – a year and a half into a five-year project.”
Board member Julie Lineberger says the fund is also seeking business owners, and potential business owners, to work with. She says grant requests have to meet the fund’s mission, the long-term economic viability of the village. Lineberger says one of the goals is to find businesses to reoccupy empty commercial spaces in downtown buildings. “If anyone is interested in opening a business in one of those buildings, we can offer financial assistance,” Lineberger said. “All people need to do is send us a grant request letting us know what the shortfall of money is, along with their business plan. We don’t offer full funding, but we can offer supplemental funding.”
For more information about the Wilmington Fund VT visit their website at www.thewilmingtonfundvt.org.