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April 18, 2018

Forster Mill demolition opens up Wilton development possibilities

Photo / Maureen Milliken
Photo / Maureen Milliken
The 116-year-old long-vacant Forster Mill in Wilton is finally coming down, opening up development possibilities at the gateway site.

WILTON — The massive Forster Mill complex on Depot Street is finally coming down after years of issues, and the town is looking forward to development opportunities.

"It'll make a big difference," said Town Manager Rhonda Irish.

The mill, on 18 acres bordered by Wilson Stream and Depot Street, which is Route 156, is at a crucial gateway to town from U.S. Route 2, but has been an eyesore for years.

Vacant since 2010, the 232,000-square-foot, four-story brick building went through a botched partial demolition in 2011 that was halted by a fire, a foreclosure and a major brownfields cleanup. The tear-down began at the end of February and should be finished by the end of the month, Irish said.

The town, which owns the property, is open to the possibilities for the site.

"It could be apartments, senior housing," Irish said. "I could have other types of business. At the moment, we're open to anything."

The site is an easy walk to the town's resurging downtown.

But she said housing is in big demand in the town of 4,000, which is home to Barclaycard, with several hundred employees.

"We could really use housing," she said.

The demolition of the main building — other buildings on the site are staying for now — should be done by the end of the month, Irish said.

The work is being done by Epping, N.H.-based EnviroVantage, which was the low bidder for the asbestos removal, which took place last year, as well as the demolition.

Industrial history, toll

Photo / Town of Wilton
Photo / Town of Wilton
The Forster Mill on Depot Road in Wilton, seen before the current demolition began.

Nestled in wooded valley next to Wilson Stream and surrounded by towering pines and woods, the mill property would have been ideal site for almost anything. Since the Wilton Woolen Mill constructed the current building on the site of a former canning factory in 1902, the property has taken a beating.

Wilton Woolen was the sole manufacturer of cashmerette, a cotton wrap used on overshoes. In 1924, when demand for the product decreased because of the growing popularity of other types of shoes, the factory switched to car upholstery, and was at one point a leading provider for General Motors.

Wilton Woolen closed in 1955, and the mill operated on and off with other owners until Forster Manufacturing bought it in 1960. The company at its high point employed 330 manufacturing workers and another 100 workers in office roles. Forster manufactured croquet sets, wooden turnings and clothespins. The company added a paint shop, and other uses that added to the eventual hazards at the site, according to a 2015 town brownfields report.

Forster Manufacturing closed in 1985, and Jarden, which makes plastic cutlery, occupied the space for several years before relocating to East Wilton.

Diamond Manufacturing subsequently bought it, manufacturing toothpicks.

Its last life was as a printing press and box cutting operation in the early 2000s.

All the uses added environmental and cleanup issues to any development or reuse.

By the time it closed for good in 2010, it was owned by Portland businessman and Adam Mack, who began tearing down a portion of the main building in 2011.

'Biggest disappointment'

Wilton's Forster Mill, which has several outbuildings, is in between Depot Street and Wilson Stream.

The 2011 demolition was halted when a fire caused by a welding torch revealed the building was loaded with asbestos.

The Department of Environmental Protection later said that a required pre-demolition asbestos assessment had never been done. Contractor Downeast Construction, of Scarborough, was fined for OSHA violations, a figure that ultimately rose to $270,000 and spurred a 2015 lawsuit by the federal government to collect the money.

By 2013, the town had filed suit against Mack for unpaid taxes as well as to force him to tear down the rest of the building. Mack paid some of the taxes in 2014, but had legal issues not related to the mill property, including convictions on federal fraud charges. He filed for bankruptcy in December 2014.

Meanwhile the partially demolished crumbling mill building greeted those who entered the town on Route 156 from Route 2.

When Sen. Tom Saviello, R-District 17, who was also a selectman for many years, didn't run for re-election to his select board position in 2015, he said lack of progress on the mill was his biggest disappointment of his years in town office.

That same year, the town foreclosed on the mill.

It's taken three years and more than $400,000 to get from the 2015 foreclosure to this spring's demolition. The teardown is being paid for through by an Environmental Protection agency brownfields grant, Community Development Block grant brownfields loan program and town undesignated money.

Irish has been posting photos to the town's Facebook page as the mill demolition progresses.

"That mill was such a big part of people's lives," she said.

But the town is also looking toward the future.

"Working on the Forster Mill [site] redevelopment is one of our main goals," she said.

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