Middlebury family proposes indoor recreation center

MIDDLEBURY — Peter “Nerf” Neff has been a master entertainer in the Addison County area for almost four decades, as a popular DJ and as quite the personality at his other job — groundskeeper at Middlebury Union Middle School.
Now Neff, his wife Naomi and several of their children hope to dial up more entertainment, in the form of an indoor recreation center they are proposing at 1232 Exchange St., Middlebury, formerly home to Otter Creek Awnings. “Whirlie’s World,” as they are calling it, would offer miniature golf, table and arcade games, a dance hall for teens (with DJ), an Internet Café, inflatable play area, concession stand, interactive video games and movie nights.
The Neffs will present their proposal to the Middlebury Development Review Board on June 27. The project will require a “change of use” permit to allow for indoor recreation in what is now a light industry zone.
“We think we have it pretty well figured out,” Peter Neff said of the project. “We are excited about it.”
The Neffs got the idea around three years ago while sitting in a Pizza Putt business with their six children.
“We thought, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be nice to do something like this in Middlebury?’” recalled Naomi Neff, who works in Middlebury College’s language department.
The couple reasoned there should be a demand for an indoor recreation area in Addison County because no such amenity currently exists between Rutland and Burlington. They floated the idea on Facebook and other social media and got some positive feedback, she said.
Peter Neff said the family considered offering laser tag, but reconsidered after anticipating potential complaints from parents opposed to games involving shooting. They instead plan to offer glow-in-the-dark miniature golf, with putting zones that radiate under black lights.
The Neffs are talking to a company that would provide coin-operated arcade games, such as pinball machines, for Whirlie’s World.
Plans call for a small concession stand that would offer hot dogs, sodas, chips and candy, among other basic refreshments.
“We do not plan a full kitchen operation,” said Neff, who said Whirlie’s World would be a family operation. The couple has three teenage sons who would take a direct role in running the business, which could be open by September if the necessary permits are obtained and building upgrades are made in short order. Those upgrades would include, among other things, installation of a sprinkler system, smoke alarms and some new flooring.
Middlebury Zoning Administrator Ted Dunakin on Thursday said it did not appear that Whirlie’s World faces many permitting hurdles, with the possible exception of parking.
Dunakin noted the town’s zoning laws governing indoor recreation call for one parking space for every two patrons. The Neffs have mapped out 35 spaces and have listed the building’s capacity as “less than 190.” That would technically call for around 95 spaces.
But Dunakin said Whirlie’s World could try to cover the balance of needed spaces through “green space waivers” or through partnering with adjacent businesses to borrow spots at times when those businesses are not operating.
The Neffs, in their project narrative, said they expect many of their customers would car-pool, bike or take the Addison County Transit Resources bus, which passes along Exchange Street every half hour.
Neither Peter nor Naomi Neff plan to quit their current jobs if Whirlie’s World goes forward. Naomi Neff added the family doesn’t see the venture as a big moneymaker, but rather as a new diversion to fill the local entertainment void for local youths and families.
“Our goal in establishing this business is to create a safe, fun space for the young and the young at heart in Addison County,” reads the project narrative.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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