WILTON — It’s easy to think that Wilton is just another manufacturing town on its way to being lost to changing times: G.H. Bass and Co. had closed its Wilton factory about 15 years ago; U.S. Route 2 was rerouted, diverting traffic away from Wilton’s downtown; and the increasingly dilapidated Forster Mill was the entrance to the town’s center.

But Wilton Town Manager Rhonda Irish hasn’t lost hope — and seemingly never will — as she talks about seeds of development that have been planted in recent years, and the potential she believes her “hidden gem” of a town has.

“Wilton has had manufacturing all the way through with the Forster Mill, Wilton Wooling, Jardens in East Wilton, which is still there now. Bass Shoe was huge,” she said. “It’s always been a wonderful community with a lot of jobs. I feel that it’s still a wonderful community, and it has been moving forward from the mills no longer being there.”

Irish lights up when she talks about the town.

“Wilton has got a lot of positive aspects with the lakes, our parks, a great location as part of Franklin County, and just really wonderful people that want to see their town be successful.”

With several town projects geared toward development in the works, a successful transformation of a former environmentally hazardous tannery and a new opportunity to participate in a grassroots-oriented community development program, Irish’s hopes are being validated as the town buzzes with the prospect of development.

Earlier this year, Wilton was chosen to participate in the program Making Headway in Your Community, which focuses on bringing communities together to devise paths to development. Through the eight-month program, community members will work with the support of Making Headway in Your Community organizers to develop an idea for a project they think would benefit the town. Once the project is chosen, Wilton will be awarded $1,000 to get the project started, an amount that must be matched by the town.

Anne Ball, a project consultant for the Maine Downtown Center who is working on the Making Headway in Your Community program, said Wilton is ripe for development with both the town and community ready to move forward.

“I feel like (Wilton) is just kind of primed and ready,” Ball said. “There are not a lot of negatives about Wilton. It’s just a great community.”

Making Headway in Your Community is a joint program under the auspices of the Maine Downtown Center and GrowSmart Maine. The program is in its second year of funding and also selected neighboring Rumford as one of its participating towns this year.

Wilton was approached to participate last year, when the program first started, but Irish said the timing was not right for the town. However, she encouraged Ball to check back in if they were approved in the second round of funding.

The program hosted its first event in Wilton on April 27, a downtown movie night held at Cazolaio’s Pasta Company. About 27 area residents gathered to hear a presentation from Ball and Andrew Zarro of GrowSmart Maine about what the timeline of the program will look like in Wilton and also to begin to brainstorm areas in which they would like to see their town develop.

Over dinner, those in attendance also watched the movie “Reviving Freedom Mill,” a short documentary following the transformation of a dilapidated grist mill in Freedom, Maine, into a thriving community center that now houses a restaurant and a school.

With the sun setting over a quiet downtown Wilton just outside the windows of Cazolaio’s, which is housed in part of the former Bass Shoe factory, the cogs of inspiration began to turn as residents watching the film saw similarities in the opportunities seized by Freedom residents.

“We’ve done this, and we didn’t even know how lucky we were to have done it,” Nancy Prince, a Wilton resident, said of Cazolaio’s setting up shop in the empty former factory.

The next step in the Making Headway in Your Community process is a “community conversation” scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. Monday at the same location. At this event, community members will have the opportunity to pitch and to vote on a project they would like to see receive the $1,000 grant.

The conversation that surrounded the event was inspiring, Prince said. She has seen her town dwindle developmentally since the loss of major businesses in recent decades.

“We have been on a downturn ever since the loss of Bass Shoe and when Main Street (lost) traffic because of Route 2,” she said. “Once the Route 2 bypass came by, then everybody bypassed downtown Wilton and our businesses started to fade. We’ve got some great organizations that do good work.

“These people care. We have a lot of people who are doing good things, but we can’t seem to pull it together enough to pull outside people in.”

DOWNTOWN DEVELOPMENT

Ball said that Wilton’s downtown infrastructure and naturally scenic location bode well for its development prospects.

“It’s a place that has potential for economic development,” Ball said. “What is starting to feel like a seed is that they have a really active downtown revitalization committee, and that is bringing all sorts of good energy into their downtown. And then building on that good energy is the fact that you’ve got this beautiful downtown.”

When Irish came on board as Wilton’s town manager in 2009, one of her first projects was developing a downtown plan, which Wilton had not previously had. She applied for a grant from the Maine Community Development Foundation to fund the creation of the plan, which would address areas where downtown needed upgrading.

“I’m big on planning, but also wanting to carry it through and not just stop at the planning,” Irish said.

After receiving the grant, the town organized a downtown revitalization committee and contracted the firm Wright-Pierce Engineers to devise the plan, which was completed between 2010 and 2011.

However, in order to put the plan into action, more funding was needed and that didn’t come until the town received a grant from the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development last year.

This August, the $400,000 grant will be put to use when the town begins work on reviving the downtown’s street amenities. Included in the upgrades will be new streetlights, the extension of the sidewalk from the shops to the Wilton Public Library, all new street signs and improvements made to a downtown parking area above Main Street.

Additionally, the town has made recent improvements to Bass Park, located close to downtown at the foot of Wilson Lake. Last year, a new parking lot was completed, and the town is presently working to plant grass where an old asphalt loop used to be. The park’s gazebo has also been outfitted with electricity with the intent of being able to power musical performances.

“I think right now, like me, people need to see the shovels go in the ground and work starting. We’ve been talking about it for so long that we’re ready, I’m ready, we’re all ready for seeing some of the results,” Irish said.

Irish said the downtown has potential, and with the upgrades being made this summer, she hopes it will make the downtown more inviting for townspeople and for prospective businesses.

With a post office, a library, a grocery store, a computer store, several restaurants, a hair salon, a children’s museum presently in the works, and a hardware store — which reopened under new ownership last year — Irish said the downtown just needs to attract more retail establishments to fill several empty storefronts.

“We have all the basics. We need the rest of the retail stores that people would be interested in,” Irish said. “We need more private investment down there.”

OUTSIDE THE DOWNTOWN

Wilton Selectman John Black agrees that downtown could use new businesses, but he said attention should also be paid to development along Route 2.

“I understand we want to at least make the downtown look better, but it’s got to be a certain type of business. There are boutique businesses that will fit in there,” Black said. “(Route 2) is undeveloped and Farmington is filling up.”

Last year, Black bought the former Wilton Tannery on Route 2 for $1 following the town’s completion of an environmental cleanup of the site.

Over the fall and winter, Black has been working to develop the 62,000-square-foot building into the Wilson Stream Business Park.

Black, who also owns Rocky Hill Landscaping just down the road from the business park, has already moved his vermicomposting project into the building, a method of composting that uses worms to create and breakdown compost.

Nichols Trailers, a Farmington-based trailer manufacturer, will move into some of the office space available in the building in the next couple of months, Black said. He added that it is the intention for Nichols Trailer to establish a showroom and some space for manufacturing at the business park as well.

This summer a fiber-optic cable will be routed to the park to establish about a dozen offices outfitted with high-speed Internet for telecommuters to rent.

“We’re slowly plugging away on it,” Black said.

Irish hopes for a similar ending to a remediation project the town is trying to get off the ground for the Forster Mill, which continues to deteriorate on Depot Street, a road that leads to Wilton’s downtown.

The town acquired the former mill in March of last year and has since been working to acquire funding to clean up the site environmentally and then tear down the building to make space for future development.

At a public hearing on the mill in December, a representative from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection said the project could cost around $1 million to complete.

Irish has submitted three grant applications to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for brownfields funding of the cleanup project. The brownfields program, run by the Maine DEP and the EPA, is the same program that provided funding for the cleanup of the tannery.

Irish expects to know whether the town has received the $600,000 in funding by the end of this month.

“I’m just ready for these (developments) to happen,” Irish said. “People need to realize that we’re working on it, that there are already all these steps in place.”

Lauren Abbate — 861-9252

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Twitter: @Lauren_M_Abbate