Welch’s visit began with a sit-down discussion with economic and community development consultant Gretchen Havreluk, town manager Scott Tucker, finance officer Christine Richter, and selectboard member Ann Manwaring. Shortly after the meeting began, Tucker asked Welch how he’d arrived in town (the answer was Route 9). Tucker’s subsequent remark that Welch hadn’t seen Route 100 then, was met with a murmur of acknowledgement from the group of town officials. Welch asked what was going on, and the group filled him in on the major road condition issues that have dominated discussion here in recent months.
“As I understand it, there was some talk about federal dollars for infrastructure,” said Tucker. “Roads in particular are a challenge.”
Welch said infrastructure planning has been one of the biggest disappointments in the Trump era.
“We had a lot of optimism,” said Welch. “Trump gets building. But so far the Trump administration isn’t putting money into (infrastructure).” Welch said the president has talked about dollar matching programs, which there is support for, but what’s currently being discussed wouldn’t necessarily be helpful to a small town like Wilmington.
“The president’s proposal is that you take $2 of federal money and match it with $13 of state and local money. But (Wilmington doesn’t) have that kind of money. And, the $2 from the federal side comes out of existing programs, like Amtrak. It also doesn’t include a revenue source. It’s always a fight about a revenue source, but potholes don’t fix themselves. And I’ve made it clear that I would support a revenue source such as a gas tax.”
Havreluk said the town could use help with federal grants and programming that would foster redevelopment of vacant buildings downtown and would help to encourage people to live, work, and raise families here. “Having families to fill our schools is really important,” said Havreluk.
Welch acknowledged that with regard to drawing people into small communities, a lack of access to, and the cost of, high-speed internet is also a hindrance.
“I really believe that there needs to be renewed federal policy to help rural Americans,” said Welch. “There are a lot of people going to the city but they like the country. They have the skills, but they can’t do business (without high-speed internet).”
Welch likened connectivity to electricity, which he said the government took on as federal policy in the 1930s. “There really is a public policy decision that needs to be made,” said Welch. “In the ‘30s we were extending electricity to rural America. There was no economic case to rolling out electricity wires to rural areas, but the Congress then made it public policy that rural America is part of America.”
Following the sit-down portion of the morning, Havreluk accompanied Welch to Bartleby’s, where he met Allison Maynard, librarian at Pettee Memorial Library, Meg Staloff, program coordinator for Wilmington Works, and Ana McDaniel, manager of Bartleby’s. Welch commended the revitalization that has occurred downtown since Tropical Storm Irene, and Staloff made note of the new sidewalk that has been added to a portion of Route 9, which Welch decided to take an impromptu walk on.
“It was unbelievable, the flood. As you know. Unreal,” said Welch. “It’s so nice to see the recovery you guys have made.”
Though Welch’s scheduler Patrick Etka offered to get his car to drive from Bartleby’s to the old school, Welch said that despite it being a dreary and damp day, he’d prefer to walk. Havreluk and Old School Enrichment Council member Meg Streeter led Welch up Route 9, past the library, and down Beaver Street so he could see the area, which has newly been added to the town’s historic downtown designation. Welch remarked that he’d never seen that part of town before.
Inside the old school, Welch took in a bit of some pickleball games that were in progress in the gymnasium, and then spoke to members of OSEC about the work they’ve done thus far and the relevance of their finding a new use for the building.
“It’s so reassuring,” said Welch. “It’s such a mess in DC these days, and we have to work through it. And that’s going to take a while. But the real leadership is coming at the community level. It really is. We have to rebuild and revitalize, and you’re doing it. It’s really nice to be part of it.”
Streeter said OSEC has been proud of its work. “We feel like this is going to happen in so many other Vermont towns until our population starts growing again,” said Streeter. “And we hope that what we’re doing will help other places as well.”
“But it takes that local leadership to do it,” said Welch. “What’s amazing to me is you’ve all been here for generations, and you’re taking on that challenge.”
Welch rounded out his visit with a stop for lunch at Dot’s, where he visited with owner Patty Reagan and ordered a cup of chicken rice soup.