Clearly, a divide deepens in Middlebury around the proposal to move the town offices and gym, but there’s a way back to the civility and trust and cooperation we pride ourselves on in this community. We have both an opportunity and a responsibility to plan carefully and boldly for our community’s future, so let’s step back for a moment and take a look at what we can accomplish and how.
First, the reality. Yes, many folks agree that announcing the project and seeking public input could have been handled better: it felt too secretive and top-down to some and thus sparked unnecessary skepticism and suspicion in the community. Frustrations predictably erupted when townspeople were offered no meaningful avenues for contributing local wisdom and creativity; indeed, the conflict-of-interest charges would likely not have been pressed if the process had felt fair.
The traditional approach taken by the Middlebury selectboard and at times the steering committee has proven ineffective time and time again across the USA and now right here at home. At times it has seemed that the proposal would die due to a botched process rather than on the merits of the plan itself. And yet, I’ve seen signs that it’s not too late for better process and decision-making. The community has a chance to heal and work together over the next few months to plan for such an important part of the town’s future. Here’s why:
The steering committee and selectboard acknowledged they were pushing the process too hard and fast and in late October agreed to push the intended December vote back to Town Meeting Day. The steering committee has designed an extensive outreach campaign enabling far more people to learn about the proposals and, to a limited degree, offer ideas. This answer falls far short of a creative brainstorming process that would best serve the town, but there will finally be the ability to listen, learn and speak in informal and convenient settings. And when changes are soon made to the town’s website, information will be much easier to access.
The town is preparing an estimate of the cost of repairing or replacing the offices and gym in their current locations to enable voters to compare opportunities and costs of “keep them” or “move them” scenarios. Also, last week’s steering committee meeting revealed an alternative location for the new gym by the Creek Road playing fields. The committee immediately recognized this option might solve some of the space and parking issues associated with the proposed Mary Hogan location and agreed to explore it further. And now a proposal is being considered to link the new offices with the library to address space needs of the library. This option may add some dollars to the final cost but will address important questions raised shortly after the original announcement.
I see the town trying to listen and address concerns, and for that I think we should give them credit. It’s not easy to admit mistakes and to change, but I hope the town has learned enough to pursue a different course of inclusion and participation in the future. We have all just witnessed what happens when citizens are not part of the process. We want to be notified. We want to be consulted. We want to be included.
And so now it’s up to all of us to attend upcoming meetings and make our questions and views known. Let’s keep the big picture in mind: with the new railroad bridges, the demolition of the Lazarus building and resulting “new” entrance to the Marble Works, and the possible relocation of the town offices and gym, BIG changes are afoot. How do you like the “new Middlebury?” Perhaps the town shouldn’t sell its land to the college and instead should just rebuild where it is — it’s been impossible to really get to these questions because of a process that has created more confusion and emotion than answers and possibilities. Let’s take a deep breath and work at getting all the information and questions out in the open for full and fair consideration and to create enough time and space for frayed relationships to repair.
The proposal can then succeed or fail on its merits, and that should be the focus of everyone’s time and attention … I know it will be of mine.
William Roper of Weybridge is the founder of Slow Communities LLC, a consulting service, and for 14 years worked at and then ran the Orton Family Foundation, where he worked on many community building projects.