Middlebury revisits plan for new municipal offices

MIDDLEBURY — Local officials here would like to mark the 100th birthday of the Middlebury municipal office building by putting together a plan to destroy the porous structure and replace it with something more utilitarian and energy efficient.
It was on Nov. 5, 2002, that residents voted 1,443-1,334 against a $6 million plan for a new, 13,982-square-foot, two-story municipal office/police building that would have been attached to a renovated municipal gym at the intersection of College and South Main streets.
The selectboard ultimately elected to spin off the police headquarters as a separate project that voters subsequently OK’d off Seymour Street. Officials decided to make do with the current municipal offices, located in the remnants of the former Middlebury High School building that was originally erected in 1911 and sustained serious fire damage in the 1950s. The town offices relocated to the repaired high school building in 1956 from the lower level of what is now the Town Hall Theater.
Middlebury Town Manager Bill Finger said the space continues to be poorly configured, has an antiquated electrical system, and uses 20,000 gallons of heating fuel each year because it is porous.
“It’s a frustrating space,” Finger said. It currently provides office space for 14 workers and various board meetings.
“We don’t think anyone in 1956 thought this (space) would last for 55 years,” he added. “This is not a good building.”
With that in mind, the town last month re-formed an ad hoc steering committee to revisit a municipal building project. That committee includes Finger, Selectmen Victor Nuovo and Nick Artim, Development Review Board member Gary Baker, and Planning Commission member Nancy Malcolm.
The committee, according to Finger, is looking at the concept of building a new facility at the present location, a building that would be smaller than the one considered in 2002. It is a structure that committee members believe should be as energy-efficient as possible while being aesthetically pleasing.
At this point, officials are keen on preserving the municipal gym while making it more energy efficient.
Finger is suggesting the new building could accommodate some rent paying nonprofit or for-profit tenants as a means of driving down the project costs and defraying some of the ongoing maintenance expenses.
“The concept is, town offices-plus,” Finger said.
As an example, he noted recent informal discussions with the Community College of Vermont (CCV) about that institution’s space needs. CCV currently operates locally in the Battell Block in downtown Middlebury. The institution has been busy with expansion efforts in Winooski and Rutland but is open to securing additional space in Middlebury, according to Finger.
“They are interested in what might become available,” Finger said.
Officials believe several nonprofits or for-profits could have interest in renting a spot in what is a prime downtown spot that now has more convenient access, parking and traffic circulation as a result of the recently completed Cross Street Bridge project.
“There are some shared space opportunities, such as conference space and perhaps equipment that could lead to some efficiencies,” Finger said.
“The bottom line in the whole thing is we might be able to create a new facility that would serve the town’s needs and reduce the town’s costs,” he added.
Finger acknowledged some potential pitfalls. The town does not want to be seen as competing with the private sector in leasing office space, of which there is already a surplus. And officials realize the potential grand list/property tax pitfalls of leasing nonprofit space to for-profit corporations.
“Tax roll-wise, there are obviously some discussions that need to happen,” Finger said. “And obviously, people are paying rent to various landlords now.”
Committee members hope to iron out those issues during the coming months.
“It’s purely a concept at this point,” Finger said. “We are not charging forward, but we are hoping we can get the discussion going and see where it heads.”
Finger hopes the discussion leads to new municipal office planning being “seriously under way” by the 2012 annual town meeting next March.
“The faster the better, but I don’t want to see a sloppy process either,” Finger said.
A new municipal building isn’t the only major project on Middlebury’s drawing board. Far more advanced are plans to upgrade the Middlebury Fire Department’s aging and under-sized facilities. Details of those plans are expected to be ready for presentation to the public later this year.
Town officials said they don’t want to saddle taxpayers with payback on two major projects at the same time and are anxious for the two initiatives to complement each other. But they noted the current deficient municipal and fire facilities are costing taxpayers a lot of extra cash to maintain and heat. And the selectboard wants to avoid spending a lot of money renovating old structures whose days may already be numbered.
“We continue to pump a lot of fuel and money into the old (municipal building),” selectboard Chairman John Tenny said. “It is meeting the needs that we have, but not meeting them well. We ought to be finding something that helps pay for itself by being more efficient.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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