A flood-ravaged family restaurant known for decades as the social center of this Vermont ski town was hoisted off its foundation Tuesday by a crane in the latest sign of renewal for a community struggling to recover from Tropical Storm Irene.
As the church bells struck noon in the historic riverside village of Wilmington, a mix of 75 tourists and locals watched and took photos as one half of Dot's Restaurant was lifted into the air and then set down on the parking lot. Owners John and Patty Reagan looked on from a road above the Deerfield River.
"Holy smokes," John Reagan said as the structure dangled in the air. The other half of the building was expected to be moved later.
The restaurant's removal marks the first step in a rebuilding and renovation project that the Reagans hope will enable Dot's to reopen in November. A badly flooded Baptist church in the village has already reopened, and there are indications of a new business going into another restored building.
"It's a great day for the valley," said Karen Sabin, an onlooker.
"It's iconic Wilmington," said villager Liz Mack, 53. She watched along with her mother, who was visiting from Florida, just as she was when Irene hit.
"Anybody who's going out to breakfast goes to Dot's. Everybody meets at Dot's," Mack said.
Dot's is a landmark that has seemingly been around forever. The building dates to 1832, when it served as a post office, and later became a general store and then a diner in 1930. But that was destroyed by flooding in 1938 and rebuilt.
One side of the building hangs over the Deerfield River, which turned into a raging torrent last August, tearing through restaurant.
For John Reagan, who bought the diner in 1980, and his wife, the prospects of rebuilding were daunting. But, they've decided to take it on after an outpouring of community support and with some critical changes, like building a taller foundation and a concrete wall along the river to make the building flood-proof.
The entire project is expected to cost $800,000. The Reagans have about $300,000 in flood insurance money left, have taken out a loan and need to raise $275,000 more.
"If we don't do it, it would never be here again," said Patty Reagan of the decision to rebuild. "It's bigger than us."
But it could take four to five years for the town to fully recover, said Lynn Bucossi, of the Friends of the Valley Foundation, which is holding a raffle for Dot's and plans a possible fundraiser in New York City. A benefit concert last weekend raised $25,000 for the restaurant.
The Preservation Trust of Vermont, which is focused on building stronger village centers and downtowns, is also helping to raise money to rebuild Dot's.
Money poured into Wilmington from second homeowners and visitors, as well as Vermonters, to help businesses rebuild after Irene hit last Aug. 28. Adam Grinold, executive director of the Mount Snow Valley Chamber of Commerce, estimates that $3 million has gone into restoring businesses in the village, so far.
Besides the flooding fixes, a new parking lot was just finished in town — a plan that's been years in the making — and a river walk is being completed. All of it follows not just Irene, but also a winter that brought scant snow to the village.
"So there's definitely a new sense of optimism that definitely wasn't there this spring coming off that hard winter," Grinold said.