Good for Middlebury. Residents turned out in high numbers for a revote on a municipal bond that confirmed its earlier decision to go forward with the proposed $6.5 million project. That 1,600 people turned out for a revote in mid-May, just 119 fewer than the initial Town Meeting Day vote, is a credit to voter participation and community interest.
The result, 880-714, is telling and not to be understated: The project turned out to be more controversial than town leaders initially thought, and while the vote has been confirmed and all parties agree to accept the majority opinion, it is worth the effort going forward solicit ideas from supporters and detractors. That not only will create a better project, but will help the town be proud of its effort once completed.
This is not an appeal to seek solidarity over past differences; that’s not necessary. It is OK for townspeople to duke it out over important matters that have divergent points of view. Not every issue will find common cause. But now that one set of important decisions have been made, there is another opening for agreement: To make the project before us the best possible.
To do that, the building committee needs enough time to reach out to the community during the design process to get ample feedback from residents and design professionals. While a date certain has yet to be set in stone as to when the ground might be broken — pending Tuesday’s vote and an assessment of how much work must be done before such decisions are made — there are several arguments that favor not rushing the design phase of the project and looking at a spring groundbreaking, rather than fall:
• We all agree that best building practices avoid being penny wise and pound foolish. Thoughtful design is the first step in that process; shortcomings occur when the design phase is rushed or cut short in order to save a few dollars. Let’s resist that temptation.
• If the effort is made to heal community rifts, a few open meetings to solicit ideas, concerns and possible solutions would be well considered. That will take a little time, though it can be done in conjunction with other progress.
• Efforts should also be made to minimize the economic disruption to downtown businesses caused by the impending construction. With the reconstruction of the railway underpasses on Main Street and Merchants Row set to start this summer, it would be the worst possible timing to begin construction on the other side of the downtown during peak foliage and through the holiday season when 60-70 percent of sales are made for many merchants. Delaying the start until spring would launch the project in a slower season for downtown businesses and allow the rail project to reach partial completion to avoid overlapping as much as is feasible.
• In the meantime, the building committee has a Herculean task to perform. What’s been done to date are architectural sketches, framing in spaces conceptually and designing to the extent the project reflects accurate cost estimates. Much remains to be done, however, including architectural blueprints, selecting best materials for the job to reach a net-zero energy efficiency rating, and reviewing the requirements of all programs to ensure what’s planned fulfills the need.
A central role of the committee is to be an informed advocate for its own project — strong enough and knowledgeable enough to argue for best building practices and able to challenge ideas that lead to best outcomes. That is not a confrontational role, but a collaborative one.
That said, the building committee, as named at Tuesday’s selectboard meeting (see story on Page 1A), needs more expertise in construction, design and the rapidly evolving world of energy efficiency. If the committee seeks an addition to its ranks, as discussed at Tuesday night’s meeting, that is the skill-set to fill; what’s not needed is an antagonist to question decisions voters have already made.
At this stage, the opportunity before town residents rings rich with excitement, while also posing the weight of responsibility. What we build today, this year and next, will be the center stone of the town for a century or more. With Tuesday’s vote behind us, taking the time to ensure the project is done well is paramount.
Angelo S. Lynn