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Wilmington's Long Road To Irene Recovery

One of the towns hit hardest by Tropical Storm Irene was Wilmington. The village, with its inns, shops and restaurants, has long been a commercial hub for the Mount Snow region. In the storm, nearly every downtown business was damaged or destroyed.

But the town is coming back.

On a Saturday, at the corner of Routes 9 and 100 in Wilmington a crowd gathers around a street musician playing a guitar.

The music is part of a series of mini-performances sponsored by Wilmington Works. The newly formed downtown group is one of many organizations and committees working to revive the local economy.

Lisa Sullivan, who owns Bartleby’s Books on Main Street, is a leader in that effort.

“What we wanted to do was create a sense of energy in town,” She says. “So people who were maybe just driving thru would see activity in the middle of town and maybe come down, do a bit of shopping, go out to dinner.”

"It's coming back slowly but surely," - John Reagan

Sullivan doesn’t want images of Wilmington’s devastation two years ago to keep visitors away now, when businesses are struggling to bounce back.  She wants to send the message that the town is open for business.

“There’s a ways to go,” she says. “There are some buildings that are empty. But there are fifteen to twenty retailers open, there are four restaurants open, and we wanted to make sure that people were aware of that.”

Sullivan’s bookstore lost most of its inventory in the flood. The battered building, which she and her husband own, had to be gutted and rebuilt.

Sullivan says she’ll never forget those first adrenalin-filled days when everyone worked together to remove debris and muck out buildings. She says that spirit of cooperation has lasted.

But she and her husband soon realized that the best thing they could do for the community was to get their shop back in business as soon as possible.

With help from flood insurance and a VEDA loan, they opened in November, hoping others would follow suit.  And some have, though others decided not to come back.

Gretchen Havreluck is Wilmington’s Economic Development Coordinator. She says some businesses that opened after the flood didn’t survive.

“Businesses just could not make it for one reason or another,” Havreluck says. “Their mortgages, just the economic situation people not coming into town, not having the cash flow.”

A few months after the storm, a part time resident named Dan Kilmurray launched the Wilmington Fund Vermont to help address the downtown’s challenges.

Wilmington resident John Gannon directs the fund. He says Kilmurray was one of many second homeowners who joined the cleanup effort after the flood.

“I think he saw that there was a need for fund raising,” Gannon says, “And to create a fund that was really focused on getting businesses back up and running, getting new businesses into town to fill some of the empty buildings that we have here.”

Wilmington Fund Vermont has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, much of it from second home owners and people outside Vermont.

One of the fund’s first projects was to purchase, restore and then resell a key corner building. A sign in the window says a restaurant is coming soon.

The fund also helped Melinda Coombs open her new dress shop, Beyond Imagination. Coombs, a lifelong local resident, says friends convinced her that Wilmington needed a boutique.

“Financially I couldn’t have done it,” she says. “But then I got in touch with the Wilmington Fund Vermont. They obviously didn’t pay for everything,  but that extra financial backing to help me get at least hopefully through the first year,  allowed me to do it.”

Wilmington Fund Vermont is also working with Dots Restaurant. The much-loved eatery abuts the Deerfield River, and took a direct hit in storm.

The restaurant’s owners John and Patti Reagan, said at first that they might not rebuild.  Now they’re working to reopen this fall.

“Probably at first we were in shock,” Patti Reagan recalls. “But after thinking it through and talking with some of the benefactors that have helped us, we decided it was worth while to restore the building.”

John Reagan says Wilmington, like Dot’s, is a work in progress.

“It’s coming back slowly but surely,”  he says.“There’s a lot of work to be done, but a lot of work has been done.”

The town still has about a dozen empty buildings. But the Reagans say it’s teeming with ideas and projects that people are working together to accomplish.

In some ways, Patti Reagan says, it’s already a better place than it was before the storm.

Susan Keese was VPR's southern Vermont reporter, based at the VPR studio in Manchester at Burr & Burton Academy. After many years as a print journalist and magazine writer, Susan started producing stories for VPR in 2002. From 2007-2009, she worked as a producer, helping to launch the noontime show Vermont Edition. Susan has won numerous journalism awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for her reporting on VPR. She wrote a column for the Sunday Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus. Her work has appeared in Vermont Life, the Boston Globe Magazine, The New York Times and other publications, as well as on NPR.
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