MIDDLEBURY — Resident Howard “Skip” Brush confirmed on Tuesday that he will spearhead a petition drive to force reconsideration of Middlebury’s Town Meeting Day vote in favor of a $6.5 million plan to build new town offices and a recreation center.
Brush is hoping the town vacates its March 4 decision and instead considers a proposal he began circulating publicly in late February. That proposal — which has yet to be vetted by the town selectboard and will not be considered for Middlebury College financing, according to college President Ron Liebowitz — calls for new town offices and a senior center to be located at 105-111 Court St. and for a new gym to be erected as an addition to the Memorial Sports Center at 296 Buttolph Drive.
Brush’s plan also calls for the current municipal building and gym property at 94 Main St. to be conveyed to the college, a provision already included in the referendum that local voters OK’d by a 915-798 margin on Town Meeting Day. Brush places the cost of his plan at $3,715,000, a sum he said could be entirely covered for considerably less than the $4.5 million the college has agreed to allot to the project voters approved on March 4.
That plan specifically calls for the college to underwrite $4.5 million of the estimated $6.5 million costs of erecting a new municipal building at 77 Main St. and a new recreation facility off Creek Road. In return, the town is to convey to the college the 94 Main St. site — which is to be cleared and turned into a public park — along with another town-owned parcel at 6 Cross St. That Cross Street parcel is to receive the college’s Osborne House, now located at 77 Main St., a site that is to be home to the new town office building.
But Brush didn’t like the town-gown plan for two primary reasons. He believes the 77 Main St. site will not include enough on-site parking and will limit future expansion opportunities for the adjacent Ilsley Library. He does not support the Creek Road location for the new recreation center because he believes it is “too small, too inconvenient for residents and is a traffic/parking issue during lacrosse and soccer games at certain times of the year.”
Rather than join in the lively debate that preceded the March 4 vote, Brush kept fairly quiet on the issue and studied other options.
“Why would we ask taxpayers to spend $2 million to do the wrong thing?” Brush said of the local share of the project that Middlebury residents are being asked to bear.
Brush’s research led him to the property for sale at 105 and 111 Court St., the former home of Lightning Photo. He believes 105 Court St. could be expanded to accommodate town offices and meeting rooms, while the lower level of 111 Court St. could be used as a senior center. The second floor of that building could be rented out or used for storage, Brush said.
Meanwhile, Brush would like to see a new gym built as an addition to the Memorial Sports Center. This space could be freed by relocating (to the west) the playground and two tennis courts. He acknowledged the use of this space would have to be OK’d by the ID-4 school board, which oversees the town’s recreation parkland.
Acquisition costs for 105 and 111 Court St. add up to $450,000, according to Brush, who said he checked with the seller’s real estate agent, Redstone. He estimated it would cost $525,000 to build a 3,500-square-foot addition onto 105 Court St. ($150 per square foot) and around $1,365,000 to construct a 7,800-square-foot addition onto the sports center ($175 per square foot).
As a point of comparison on construction costs, Vergennes City Manager Mel Hawley said the city paid $204 per square foot for construction of its new 4,611-square-foot police station, which opened last month. That figure excludes the cost of land acquisition and site work, Hawley said.
Also included in Brush’s estimate is a total of $40,000 for relocation of the playground and tennis courts; $300,000 to complete the second floor of the sports center to provide bathrooms, concession stand and other amenities that could be shared with the newly attached gym; $35,000 to pave and light the walkway from the westerly parking lot to the gym/sports center; a $500,000 contingency fund; and $450,000 to make parking and traffic circulation upgrades to the nearby Mary Hogan Elementary School parking lot. School directors have expressed concern about the impact a new sports building could have on student safety, traffic and parking at Mary Hogan.
“I’m sure we could work something out with the school board that’s acceptable to them,” said Brush, a member of the Memorial Sports Center board and former ID-4 director.
The total estimated price tag of just over $3.7 million could be more than covered with the same $4.5 million the college has pledged to the project that was OK’d by voters on March 4, Brush said.
Brush had not expected to unveil his proposal until after Town Meeting Day. But he ultimately decided to release his proposal in late February, after he had seen the town’s informational flier about the $6.5 million project. He made 700 copies of his proposal, passing out 670 of them by March 4.
“It was last-minute, and I apologize for that,” he said.
“I thought (the $6.5 million project) would fail,” he said.
HURDLES TO PLAN
Brush reported receiving positive feedback as he presented his plan door to door. He acknowledged, however, that the proposal faces at least two major hurdles right out of the chute.
First, locating the municipal building at 105 Court St. would run counter to language in Middlebury’s town plan stipulating that the municipal building and gym remain at their current downtown location. The approved project has already drawn some criticism on that score because it does not call for the town offices and gym to be renovated or rebuilt at 94 Main St.
But Brush believes the center of the downtown has “shifted” closer to Court Street. And he does not believe in some residents’ contention that keeping the municipal building downtown will benefit local stores.
“That building is a destination and not an attraction to draw people to the downtown,” said Brush, a member of the Middlebury Development Review Board. He believes the 105 Court St. spot would be more convenient for East Middlebury residents.
Along with the downtown issue, the Brush proposal does not stand to benefit from college funding.
“At this point, the college is committed to the proposal that the selectboard has brought to us, and that is the only thing I received board (of trustees) approval for and is the only thing we are offering at this point,” Liebowitz said during a telephone interview this week. “There should be no financial expectations from the college on any different plan.”
Brush, former (retired) director of purchasing for Middlebury College, said he has spoken with Liebowitz about his proposal. He holds on to hope that the college might reconsider.
“My belief is that at some point, that college money will be there for a different plan,” Brush said. “That’s based on my belief that the college wants that (94 Main St.) property.”
Middlebury selectboard Chairman Dean George was disappointed to hear of Brush’s petition. Brush has until April 3 to collect at least 250 signatures to force a special vote on reconsideration. That vote would only involve reconsideration of the previously approved $6.5 million plan, and would not be a referendum on Brush’s proposal.
“The idea of developing town offices outside of the downtown is something that’s not supported by most people,” George said. “I hope he has a clear understanding that the college is not going to participate financially in this. I don’t know where the money, or the support, is going to come from to do this.”
If Brush follows through and gets the signatures he needs for his petition, it will be up to the selectboard to set a vote for later this spring.
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.