Residents to decide on river walk

Wilton voters will have say on beautifying riverfront

WILTON – Creating a pedestrian walk along the Souhegan River behind the Main Street stores has been proposed many times over the years, from the Main Street Association to a high school girl who used it as a science project.

While many people have liked the idea, it never happened for reasons of costs, liability and the opposition of some landowners.

Several studies of area downtowns have stressed that a riverfront can be a town’s biggest asset in attracting visitors. Wilton’s has much to recommend it to planners: scenic views, picturesque railroad bridges, a few nice trees, and occasional visits from wildlife such as great blue herons and river otters.

Those plans generally included the area from the confluence of Stoney Brook and the Souhegan River, beside the Wilton Falls Building, to the new Main Street Park. Ideas have included steps from both the Proctor parking lot and the Main Street Park, lighting, benches and a picnic area.

The new Economic Development Committee is also taking a long look at the river. Committee Chairman Jennifer Beck has called it the town’s biggest potential draw. But that group has a new focus: the other side of Burns Hill Road, the town-owned Police Department parking lot along Stoney Brook, beside and behind the police station, which was built in 2003.

The new plan is called Stoney Brook River Walk.

“We already own the land,” Beck said. “If we can get people to go there, then we can move down the river.”

The idea, she said, “is to get people outdoors.”

The area is currently used by joggers and dog walkers, as well as by fishermen.

Current plans, still in the development stage, include improvement of the sidewalk, replacing or repairing decorative lighting from a small park that existed for a short time in the 1970s, adding 10 native trees, and planting low-maintenance grasses along the riverbank to protect the river and granite benches along it.

“And we’ve been asked to fix the railing on the bridge,” Beck said.

The area at the back of the lot will be left to store snow, as it is now.

Money would come from the Cooley Capital Reserve Fund. Roland Cooley left money to the town in the 1970s, and interest has been collecting since then. Some years ago, voters approved moving much of that interest to another fund that could be used “for the betterment of the town,” as Cooley had indicated.

Cooley Park, created by the Main Street Association with some of those funds in the 1990s, is the area at the west end of Town Hall.

A survey conducted by the committee over the last six months “indicates a desire for more public gathering places downtown and a river walk,” Beck said. “We’re responding to what residents have told us they want.

“This seems a reasonable first step in leveraging one of our most precious natural resources.”

The area, she noted, “currently is a wasted, unattractive space with broken fixtures and unsafe railings.”

The area has a long and rich history.

From the 1800s to 1960, it was occupied by the Whiting Industries grist, sawmill and box shop. The factory made, among other wooden items, apple boxes and the milk crates needed by the Whiting dairy.

After the Whitings, it was used by several companies. Chaffey Bros. was the last to make boxes. In 1960, the old buildings were purchased by Abbott Industries and torn down. The pond was drained and the mill foundation stones used to create the current riverbank.

The Abbotts created a small park, and heirs offered the area to the town for a memorial, but voters declined to buy it.

The town acquired the mill site in the 1990s, but did not buy the former Pressed Metals Building, now called the Wilton Falls Building. That was purchased by the Main Street Association and is now owned by Kimball Physics.

The question is one of three articles proposed by the Economic Development Committee. The other two address tax relief incentives for business owners and a design charrette project to involve residents in creating a long-term plan for the town.

The questions will be debated at Town Meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 16, at Florence Rideout Elementary School.