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Back From The Flood: Wilmington's Post-Irene Economy Is 'Stronger Than Ever'

Nancy Eve Cohen for VPR
Irene's floodwaters destroyed Andrea Berg's clothing store, Pickwell's Barn, in 2011. At the time, Wilmington was still recovering from the 2008 receession. But Berg didn't hesistate to reopen, and now she says her business and others are thriving.

Since Tropical Storm Irene ripped through Wilmington, businesses there have worked hard to recover. And by some measures, the local economy now is better than before the flood.

On Aug. 28, 2011 Andrea Berg watched from a hillside as the floodwaters hovered over the front door of her clothing store, Pickwell’s Barn. When the river receded it left behind piles of debris.

“All the clothing, all the jewelry, all the signs, pottery, wine glasses, everything was down the river,” she recalls.

At least two buildings had washed away. Others were filled with mud. The town felt broken. At the time, Wilmington was still recovering from the 2008 recession. But Andrea Berg didn’t hesitate to reopen.

“As you looked around the town it was so devastated that you knew if businesses didn’t get up and opened, that there would be no town,” she says.

Like many other business owners, Berg got grants from the Wilmington Fund VT, the Rotary Club and a loan from the Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA). It took her six months to reopen.

Berg says now her store and other local businesses are thriving.

"As you looked around the town, it was so devastated that you knew if businesses didn't get up and opened, that there would be no town." - Andrea Berg, Pickwell’s Barn owner

“We have three or four new restaurants  in town. We have three to four shops that are doing well,” she says. “It’s back and stronger than ever.”

One of those restaurants, Folly, was started by Kathleen and Peter Wallace. Peter Wallace, the chef, is straining butternut squash in the restaurant’s kitchen.

“Tonight we have wood-fired Spanish octopus with a hot pepper relish and avocado crema,” he says.

Not exactly a run-of-the mill menu.

“I braise the octopus for several hours in red wine and believe it or not, wine corks which helps tenderize the octopus,” he says.

Credit Nancy Eve Cohen for VPR
At Folly, a new Wilmington restaurant, chef and co-owner Peter Wallace preps vegetables. He and his wife Kathleen Wallace expanded when they discovered that the clientele is there, including customers from a nearby private ski resort, the Hermitage Club.

The couple first opened a bakery café in 2013. Kathleen Wallace says the opening of another restaurant, the Cask & Kiln Kitchen, inspired them.

“That was going to be a very positive and needed new addition to town, so we thought, we’ll do something too,” she says.

Just this fall, they morphed their cafe into a 14-seat restaurant. Kathleen Wallace says they discovered that the clientele is there, including people from a nearby private ski resort, the Hermitage Club.

“That affected our decision and our confidence,” she says. “[The resort] is bringing a lot of people from Connecticut and New York City, people who are coming to town, and they want a town to go to!”

"This is a real shining star ... growing faster than the state by significant amounts and doing much better than other areas in southern Vermont." - Art Woolf, UVM economist

The Hermitage Club has 720 members and plans to double that number, according to Meredith Morin, director of communications.

Membership is pricey: The initiation fee is $75,000, according to Morin, and is increasing to $85,000 after Feb. 15. Annual dues are around $6,500.

The club purchased Haystack Mountain, the Deerfield Valley Airport and five inns. It has renovated about 80 hotel rooms and three restaurants. It plans to develop a total of 450 housing units.

And some Hermitage members have separately purchased several buildings in downtown Wilmington that will be renovated into retail space, restaurants and hotel rooms.

The economic activity in Wilmington is showing up in state labor data and meal tax receipts, according to economist Art Woolf of the University of Vermont.

Credit Bull Stockwell Allen / The Hermitage Club
The Hermitage Club
An artist rending of a 92-unit hotel The Hermitage Club, an exclusive resort in Wilmington, hopes to build. The resort is in the midst of major expansion, and its members are bringing an influx of capital to Wilmington.

“Not only is it getting better, but by a lot of measures it’s actually better than it was before the flood.”

Woolf says the spending on meals in Wilmington the last few years was as much as four times that of the state average.

“I see a very healthy economy. Not just kind of bouncing back from the bad times during the flood, but actually, for a few years now, growing faster than the state by significant amounts and doing much better than other areas in southern Vermont,” Woolf says. “This is a real shining star.”

The town is working on extending water and sewage lines, improving lighting and sidewalks to draw new businesses and customers. Federal disaster relief funds will pay for some of this. And a group, Wilmington Works, hosts festivals and activities downtown.

"In some ways the flood was a purging that was a healthy thing for the town." - Joe Specht, Wilmington resident

“In some ways the flood was a purging that was a healthy thing for the town,” says Joe Specht. He and his wife lost an art gallery in the flood.

“The sense of community that developed  immediately after the flood, it was amazing, and it was really heart moving to be part of that, despite the fact that all of us had great losses,” Specht says.

As the town continues to heal, many business owners remain optimistic — and are crossing their fingers for snow.

Nancy Cohen covers southern Vermont's recovery from Tropical Storm Irene. Her work is supported by the VPR Journalism Fund.
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