Kaitlyn Dunnett/Kathy Lynn Emerson here, pondering the fact that residents of the same village that was listed as fourth among the ten prettiest in central Maine in a Kennebec Journal feature in 2012, recently voted to accept the designation “slum and blight” because it was the only way to qualify for Community Development Block Grant funding—much needed federal funds to improve the infrastructure of the downtown area.
Blame the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for this one, folks. They are the ones who changed the way they calculate the percentage of low and moderate income households in a given town, thereby making Wilton, Maine, which had previously been eligible for funds, ineligible unless they were willing to admit to this less-than-pleasant-sounding description. Same place. Same conditions. Under the old method, using figures from the U. S. Census, Wilton qualified. Under the new system, using something called the American Community Survey, the town fell short of eligibility by two percent. Only 49% of our population was considered to have low or moderate income when we needed to hit 51% to qualify for help. Left with a choice between conducting an income survey, something that would be both time-consuming and expensive, and voting at a special town meeting to declare a specific section of town a “slum and blight,” there wasn’t really much choice about what to do.
There’s no question that there are things that need fixing—vacant buildings, aging street lights and sidewalks, a particularly uneven stretch of road I drive over every day to get to the post office—but my downtown is a slum? Was it really necessary to go that far?
Apparently, it was. The special town meeting was duly called. No, I didn’t attend. My bad. Then again, in a town with a population of 4,116 in 2010 (down eight from the population in 2000), only thirty-five people did show up. Like most of the rest of Wilton’s residents, I read about the meeting in the next day’s online Daily Bulldog.
Here’s the fact that swayed those attending to approve the new designation: using the same income standards as the current “slum and blight” description requires, the town applied for an earlier federal grant back in 1988. At that time, they received $500,000, which was used to build a new parking lot, update street lights, tear down several dilapidated buildings and do paving work. Infrastructure improvements aren’t cheap. Ask the state government for help? Forget it! Not under this administration. Private funding? We don’t have any millionaires living in Wilton anymore. Heck, we don’t even have any industry. Once upon a time, Wilton was the home of Bass Shoe (Weejuns), Forster Manufacturing (toothpicks and clothes pins), and a thriving tannery. The former shoe factory on Main Street has taken on new life and now houses a restaurant, businesses, and apartments, but elsewhere we have industrial waste and abandoned factory buildings to deal with.
All things considered, there was really no question about how the vote would go. The downtown area, all the way from Wilson Lake along Main Street to the Academy Hill School and then down Depot Street to U. S. Rt. 2 is now officially a “slum and blight.”
I’m pleased that Wilton qualifies for federal assistance but I can’t help but wonder what hoops small rural towns will be made to jump through next. I have a good imagination. The possibilities boggle the mind.