Words Can Make a Differance

Words Can Make a Difference - The Economic Development Leadership Team

Jennifer BeckSometimes something as small as a printed notice handed out on primary day can change the course of a community’s future.  Jennifer Beck tells of a flier that did just that.

Jennifer had recently retired from a job where she cajoled corporate executives into consensus on complicated issues. Now she was looking for something new to do.  When that flier landed in her hand with the words “Revitalize Wilton,” calling for volunteers to establish an Economic Development Team, she thought,   “I can do that.”

She was given a SWOT to fill out: A strategic planning tool used to assess the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats in a community. This was when Jennifer realized she knew little about Wilton, other than a few shops she frequented. She set out to walk around town with the guidance of long-time Wilton resident, Liz Torre. 

It didn’t take long before Jennifer was asked to go before the Select Board to present what she had learned and how an Economic Development team might work effectively. As she explained it, “I went from presenting to Fortune 50 companies all over the world to presenting an analysis to Wilton’s Select Board.  I remember telling them that energy and passion were not enough.  You need a committed team that knows how to work together with good chemistry and the talents and skills to get the job done.”

One of the first things Jennifer insisted upon was that Eco-Dev be known as a leadership team not a committee, with the stipulation that its members would not be elected nor appointed nor hold a budget.  They’d work at the pleasure of the Select Board while cooperating with other town boards and committees, solely as volunteers. 

Once the team was in place, Jennifer discovered there was no valid hard data to direct the course of Eco-Dev’s mission: To set priorities, make recommendations, guide the execution of programs and projects, while retaining its rural nature. Early research revealed people were consistent; they knew they wanted open spaces and wild places to remain part of Wilton’s ambiance.   But they didn’t necessarily know what they needed.

Jennifer applied what she learned in corporate America to Wilton.  It took a year of interviews, research and help from state agencies before they had a list of projects that could be prioritized by urgency, feasibility and highest public benefit.

Under Jennifer’s leadership, the Eco-Dev team put a few immediate changes into place. Including a focus on visitors and business recruitment on the new Wilton web site was one of its first high-priority tasks. It has become a model for other communities to emulate.  Wilton’s new town signage and town branding were also early accomplishments.  She credits her team of Jackie Kahle, Kat Tighe, Dick Putnam, Mike McGonegal, Ray Fangmeyer, Mike Justason, and Select Board member, Kermit Williams, with bringing these and later projects to fruition.

 Grants, often written by Jennifer, are the way the majority of the work is funded. Other funding comes from warrants, private donations and through the efforts of volunteers. Through grants and additional funding, Eco- Dev revitalized Veteran’s Memorial Park with additional help from the Legion and volunteers; they completed Phase One of the Wilton Riverwalk, and constructed Wilton’s gazebo.

Two future projects are in process: A new foot bridge joining what was the Old Colony Mill with the Riverview Mills and a second bridge connecting the Gazebo with Stony Brook Trail. Even better, Old Colony Mill is under new ownership with plans to bring many of the dreams of the Eco-Dev team to life – housing, retail shops, jobs in light manufacturing and a new restaurant.

A small thing like handing out a flier asking for help can make a world of difference to a community, especially if people like Jennifer Beck grab hold of it.

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