Panel members included Chris Saunders, from Sen. Patrick Leahy’s office; Jon Michael “Max” Muise, from the USDA Rural Development office; Susan MacMahon, of Windham Regional Commission; Adam Grinold, executive director of Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation; and R.T. Brown, of the Windham County Economic Development Program.
Each of the panelists described dozens of opportunities for grants, loans, education, and other support for entrepreneurs and established businesses looking to start or expand a business, as well as opportunities for municipalities seeking assistance with planning and redevelopment.
Together, the panelists offered access to technical expertise and millions of dollars in funding. However, only two members of the business community and two municipal officials attended the session. Grinold said the session was a “dry run” for the series, and the group will be searching for ways to reach out to community members before upcoming sessions. “This is the pilot,” Grinold said. “We’ve already planned the next couple of steps, and I think we need to find the value (of attending the discussion). People are busy, and we need to communicate the value.”
Deerfield Valley News owner Randy Capitani said he has noticed “decline” in Wilmington’s business district, which he said is driven by stalled development in the village, as well as a lack of engagement by some business owners. “I think Wilmington’s downtown is losing,” he said. “I talked to a business owner recently who complained that one developer had come in and bought up three buildings, and renovated one, but the others are only developed to a certain level, then stopped. And the (former Wilmington Home Center building) is hurting foot traffic in Wilmington. And you also have businesses that are open only weekends, or seasonally. More new businesses have gone to Dover in the last few years than Wilmington.”
Wilmington economic development consultant Gretchen Havreluk said she has been working with the owners of the former Wilmington Home Center to find a viable tenant for the building. “We’re close to a deal with one that would be a real asset to our community,” she said. “And we also have a new store on South Main Street that is being renovated using historic tax credits. Honora plans to move their brewery to their building in Wilmington, but the problem is getting water and sewer over the hill. And the high school is a big nut. We have a lot of potential projects, but we feel like we’ve come a long way.”
Capitani also urged “succession planning” for aging business owners, something that Havreluk and others have attempted to facilitate before. “A lot of these business owners are the same people who helped me get my business successful over the years, and I don’t want to see them go out in a bad way,” Capitani said.
Havreluk said the previous attempts at succession planning haven’t been successful, at least in part because many business owners can’t foresee a time when they’ll be able to sell their business. “The majority of aging business owners in Wilmington were affected by the flood,” Havreluk said. “There was limited help from FEMA and a lot of them went into a tremendous amount of debt. The only way they see to get out of it is to keep working. That’s a tough one for me.” Grinold said he sees an opportunity for Wilmington to move forward with a more unified vision. “Gretchen, Wilmington Works, and the new town manager need a clear vision for everyone to work on now that the rebuilding (after Tropical Storm Irene) is done. And I think (new selectboard member) Ann Manwaring was not shy about her interest in the old high school and taking steps to ensure it is an asset in the community.”