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Middlebury will unveil options for town offices

MIDDLEBURY — Architects working on a potential makeover of the Middlebury municipal building will present draft plans to town officials on Dec. 29; plans that will include erecting a brand new structure or incorporating some of the existing bricks and mortar.
Middlebury officials have, for the past decade, been considering ways to improve or replace the town offices at the intersection of South Main and College streets.
Those offices are set in the remnants of the former Middlebury High School, built in 1911. That building sustained major damage from a fire during the 1950s. The municipal offices moved into the building in 1956 after it was salvaged and repaired.
Unfortunately, that space has proven increasingly energy inefficient and poorly configured for the town offices, according to Middlebury officials. For example, it has taken around 20,000 gallons of fuel oil per year to heat the building due to an antiquated boiler system and a porous structure. With fuel oil prices threatening to reach $4 per gallon, selectboard members are concerned that residents’ tax dollars are literally going through the roof.
With that in mind, the selectboard agreed to hire Middlebury’s Vermont Integrated Architecture (VIA) to help the town’s Community Center Steering Committee craft some potential re-build or on-site replacement options for the municipal building.
VIA Architects Andrea Murray and Ashar Nelson have been putting together drawings that will be unveiled and explained to the town selectboard on Nov. 29 at 7 p.m. in the town office conference room. The information will then be put out for public comment at a special meeting slated for Wednesday, Dec. 7, at 7 p.m. in the municipal gym.
“This will be the first time the selectboard will have seen plans in any detail,” Middlebury town Manager Bill Finger said of the board’s Nov. 29 meeting. “The idea is to bring them up to speed as to where the committee is.”
Committee members recently decided on a significant change in the direction of the project: There would be no new outside tenant(s) in the building aside from the town offices. The committee had considered wooing other tenants — including the Community College of Vermont (CCV) — to generate rental income that would be used to draw down the taxpayers’ tab for the project.
“CCV has expressed continuing interest in the project, but they are not at a point where they are actively looking for space,” Finger explained. “So we are looking more at developing space just for town offices with the potential for future expansion.”
Still, Murray said officials could choose to pitch a project that brings other town-related organizations under the same roof — such as the Better Middlebury Partnership and the Middlebury Area Land Trust.
Addison County Teens and the Russ Sholes Senior Center are currently based in the municipal building and would be part of a new project, Finger said.
VIA and the steering committee developed a vision statement calling for a municipal building project that, among other things:
•  Welcomes the people of the town and its visitors.
•  Represents long-term thinking and carefully considers the town’s history and that of future generations.
•  Involves the community in its design and construction, thereby promoting local economic development.
•  Demonstrates and teaches the importance of sustainability and energy efficiency, while being a “net-zero energy” facility.
Nelson added a new or renovated municipal building would send a positive message to future entrepreneurs.
“If a (representative of a) new business comes into town and wants to know we are serious about helping them be successful, it would be much easier if they walked into a nice facility,” Nelson said.
That said, proponents realize they will have to make a strong case for a municipal building project. Middlebury residents in March will face a $4.8 million bond proposal to upgrade the Seymour Street and East Middlebury fire stations. It is also looking like local voters will be absorbing some of the costs for a new Middlebury Union Middle School roof, and selectmen are also pitching a partially town-funded economic development position on Town Meeting Day.
Officials are hoping to present a town offices project to local residents by 2013.
“This will have to be sold to the voters of the community,” Nelson said. “They will need to understand why, especially in this economic climate.”
Nelson and Murray will show two potential design schemes for the improved municipal building, one being a brand new facility (at the current site), the other a major renovation working with some of the existing architecture that many residents seem to appreciate. For example, the arch built onto the Main Street roundabout-facing façade of the building is admired by a lot of people, according to Murray.
“These are basically ideas,” Nelson stressed. “We need to have a much broader dialogue.”
Planners said they have yet to assign any cost estimates to a project. But Nelson said they are assuming the need for around 36,000 square feet of space, a figure that includes both the municipal building and the adjacent 1939 gym, which would remain in place under any construction scenario. That’s only 1,500 square feet more than is currently provided at the site, but the new space would be more efficiently laid out, officials said.
Murray said either project footprint could allow for more walking and congregating space, perhaps even a visitors’ center and public restrooms.
“Here we have this building. It’s been left for such a long time without any major upgrades, and it’s costing money just to do nothing at this point,” Murray said. “We need to make a decision what we do, and what kind of building to we want to leave to our children and grandchildren.”
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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