MIDDLEBURY — The town should step back and consider long-term community needs — including those of the Ilsley Library and downtown parking — before seriously considering ceding public property to Middlebury College in exchange for $5.5 million toward a new, relocated municipal building and a gym.
That was the majority opinion expressed by more than a dozen people who spoke up at Tuesday’s public forum on a proposal that would result in a new 8,000- to 9,000-square-foot municipal building being erected at the current site of Middlebury College’s historic Osborne House at 77 Main St. and a new public gym built somewhere in the recreation park off Mary Hogan Drive.
Middlebury College would contribute $5.5 million toward the estimated $7.5 million project, which calls for the town to demolish and remove the current municipal building and gym at the intersection of College and South Main streets and give that parcel to the college, which would turn it into a park. The community would also be responsible for moving the Osborne House from its current location to a town-owned parcel at the intersection of Cross and Water streets.
A majority of the selectboard is touting the proposal as a potential big win for local taxpayers, who they noted would be off the hook for all but $2 million for new municipal offices that would remain in the downtown, as well as a new gym that would be sited near the Memorial Sports Center and the swimming pool. Plans call for the new facilities to continue to accommodate current nonprofit tenants, including the teen center and Russ Sholes Senior Center.
Selectman Victor Nuovo, chairman of the Town Center Steering Committee that convened Tuesday’s hearing, one of several designed to solicit public feedback on the proposal, said the selectboard had spent the past several years considering renovation and replacement options for the municipal building and gym at their current location. The two buildings are deteriorating and are energy hogs. The most recent estimate for replacing the municipal building and renovating the gym on site was $10 million, a price tag the selectboard believes would not earn taxpayer support.
Nuovo noted the committee looked at trying to raise the money privately and/or through state and federal grants. It became clear neither option was realistic, according to Nuovo. So Nuovo, a professor emeritus of philosophy at the college, and selectboard Chairman Dean George approached the college early this year with an aid request.
The selectboard announced the framework of a deal last month.
While initial reaction throughout the community has largely been positive, including widespread support among the business community, it became clear on Tuesday that some citizens aren’t sold on the proposal. Many of the approximately 25 people who attended the meeting expressed trepidations about the town permanently losing what they said is a significant downtown location.
“This parcel here is part of our town, and we are giving away part of our town that can serve us in so many ways in the near future and in the distant future,” said resident Victoria DeWind. “Yes, the money is very alluring when it’s promised to you, but we’ve got to think of what our needs are going to be, and they belong here. This is such an opportunity for the town; why do we give it away for a park? We don’t need another park to meet our different needs.”
Resident and local businesswoman Barbara Tomb said she hoped the college would instead simply invest in a new municipal building at its current location for the greater good of the community.
“If the college is part of the community, I guess I’d kind of like to see them step up and go ahead and contribute (to an on-site project) without needing to get something necessarily in return for it, other than appreciation and being a good neighbor,” Tomb said.
Town officials said the college has not expressed interest in financially assisting in a plan to rebuild the town offices and gym at their present location — a position reiterated by David Donahue, special assistant to college President Ron Liebowitz, at an earlier steering committee meeting on Tuesday.
Clearing the municipal building would provide a clear vista of the campus at the eastern end of town.
“When we began this process… we didn’t start with a price tag, saying ‘How much can you (the college) afford to put into this?’” Nuovo said. The two sides agreed to a contribution number after negotiations and after the town had made a rough estimate on what it might cost for a new municipal building and gym.
Tomb added the Osborne House site, if vacated, might be better suited to hosting a commercial venture in the context of an oft-discussed economic development project on land behind the Ilsley Library.
“I guess I’d like to see us think bigger,” Tomb said.
Others feared building town offices at the Osborne House site would cramp the adjacent Ilsley Library and hamper any of its future expansion options.
“Our wonderful public library is bursting at the seams,” said resident Cynthia Waters. “This is not really a big piece of space. If a municipal building is built there, it will crowd (the library) in and there is hardly anywhere to expand it to. I had always hoped that the Osborne building would go to a library addition, so I’m appalled at taking that space out of play for the library. The library needs it.”
Resident Mimi Hardy agreed.
“The library is one of the jewels of downtown,” Hardy said, noting the facility’s expanding youth programs. “I feel the library needs every space of that parking lot right now. (The library) needs space to develop and grow. I’m really very much against putting the town offices right there. It’s too small a space for a building that is used quite a bit, and needs parking.”
Several people at Tuesday’s meeting raised concerns about whether the Osborne House site could support enough parking for a municipal building. Spaces are already at a premium during the daytime on Main Street and in the lot behind the Ilsley Library, they noted.
“It’s extremely important to me,” resident Barbara Shapiro said of parking, which she said is in adequate supply at the current municipal building site. She added she believes the new Cross Street Bridge roundabout has made it more dangerous for pedestrians to get around the downtown.
Weybridge resident and former Orton Family Foundation Executive Director Bill Roper said it might be wise for the town to revisit the notion of a parking garage within the context of its municipal building discussions. Town officials a few years ago discussed the concept of a multi-level parking garage on the municipal lot behind Sama’s Café off College Street.
Nuovo believes there will be decent parking opportunities at the Osborne site, which he said will afford a total of 13,000 square feet. A new, two-story municipal building is likely to have a footprint of 4,000 square feet, he said.
“Do we have a parking problem? Absolutely,” Nuovo said. “Does it need to be addressed? Absolutely. Have we come up with the details of how it’s going to be addressed? Not yet. We are just at the beginning of this process.”
Some residents resurrected some past ideas that they believed deserved a second look. Among them: Negotiating a deal with the college to move the town offices into Twilight Hall, or erecting a new municipal building in the Middlebury South Village (MSV) development off Court Street.
“The area has quite changed from the Maple Manor (Motel) days,” resident Alpine Bingham said of MSV, which currently has a mix of banks, offices and residences in a part of town where he said a lot of people already conduct much of their business. “I believe the town offices would be suited over there.”
Resident Roger Desautels argued that giving up the current municipal building parcel would represent another example of the town giving up an asset while increasing Middlebury College’s footprint in the village.
“I don’t like this plan,” Desautels said.
“I’ve been in Middlebury all my life and I keep seeing the town sell off pieces of itself to raise money,” he said, noting the sale two decades ago of a 600-acre municipal forest property in Bristol and the “College Street Graded School” acquired, renovated and renamed Twilight Hall by the college in 1984.
“We are creating a situation where the (St. Mary’s) Catholic Church is becoming a footnote on the Middlebury College campus,” he said. “Where do we stop selling the town of Middlebury? Why not go all the way, sell the entire town to the college and they can administer it as one of their programs, and all of these discussions can be over with,” he quipped.
Middlebury College is the town’s largest employer and property owner. It is exempt from paying taxes on property that plays a direct role in its educational mission, but pays property taxes on its holdings that do not fit that definition. The college also has a “fair-share” agreement with the town through which it contributes money to help stabilize the local tax rate in recognition of the impact it has on municipal services. The college also recently agreed to contribute $9 million toward the $16 million Cross Street Bridge project.
Not everyone who spoke up on Tuesday was opposed to the proposed deal.
Resident John Illick is a local developer who acknowledged interest in competing for the contract to build the project if it advances. He said the selectboard was wise in using the current municipal building site as a bargaining chip, in part because the property is currently restricted to educational use.
“Whatever we are getting for the property is wonderful,” he said. “We’re not giving it away. We are getting something very, very valuable in return. We are getting another lot and we’re getting a bunch of money to support a very important town need. Our municipal offices have quite frankly been a public disgrace since I was a planning officer up here in 1975. It’s a public disgrace. It’s long overdue.”
Resident Pat Chase said, “I’m excited about the possibilities… I have always been in favor of keeping the town offices here, but I think your plan is wonderful. I think it solves some issues.”
Town officials promised residents would be solicited for more input as the new office/gym plans take shape during the coming weeks. The selectboard wants to have a bond vote on a project this fall.
“We are not trying to be ‘closed-doors’ about this and we aren’t rushing this,” George said. “We have the financial piece potentially in place; we haven’t even started looked at how we are going to design this and what it’s going to look like.”
“When we present this for a vote before the town, hopefully it will be a project that everyone understands — whether you agree with it or not — and then we will have a vote and determine whether we go forward,” he added.
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.