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Editorial: Town faces tough sledding on new municipal building

The Middlebury selectboard has some tough sledding if they are to convince town taxpayers to shell out $6 million to $10 million for a new municipal building to house a safe, some town records, a gym and a half-dozen offices. That’s primarily because it comes right on the heels of a new $4.65 million fire station that voters approved this past March, and a couple years earlier, about $7 million hit for the new Cross Street Bridge (the latter of which was an absolute necessity and has proven its weight in gold.)
It’s not that the municipal building doesn’t need an upgrade, it does. But Middlebury taxpayers might be reeling from tax fatigue.
After this past town meeting, citizens were already grumbling about grudgingly passing the Taj Mahal of a fire station (did it really need a tower of glass?) and they knew the next big project was a new municipal building.
“Put it in the basement of the post office,” was one of the suggestions after town meeting — not a very impression domicile for a town hall, but in dire circumstances it might do the trick and save taxpayers a lot of money; plus it has restrooms for the public and it couldn’t be in a more convenient location.
Then again, it would be invisible and grossly understated, which brings up the selectboard’s primary pitch: The municipal building should be an impressive statement of architectural authority and prestige. It should represent the ideals and aspirations of the town, as well as serve the community efficiently and conveniently. It should be used frequently and cherished by town residents.
To meet those ideals, the present location is the best in town.
A newly designed building that sports energy-efficient construction, uses renewable energy and provides the public with new opportunities to congregate in the downtown is certainty a worthy goal. Plus, if the building would provide the public with a visitor information outpost and prominently displayed restrooms, those two features would meet visitor and town needs that have gone unfulfilled for decades.
And if the building met all those ideals, surely it would be an unmistakable statement to visitors and residents that Middlebury is a town on-the-go; one that is willing to spend money to make that statement in a bold and dramatic fashion.
But it comes at a pretty steep price tag, and there are alternatives.
The off-the-cuff suggestion to use the basement of the post office may have been born out of frustration, but in a pinch and if it were available (both of which are conditions that make this an unlikely option), it probably could fit the bill in the barest terms (except parking would be a nightmare; and, of course, the gym would have to be a separate facility built next to the hockey rink, town tennis courts and swimming pool — which also makes sense.)
But other alternatives are more appealing. The best is to put the town offices in a prominent spot in the newly proposed commercial building (often referred to as the EDI, economic development initiative) that would abut the Cross Street Bridge and sit behind the Ilsley Library. There is parking; it’s in the center of town; the architecture could feature the town offices in a prominent way; and it could feature public amenities, including restrooms and visitor information. Another downtown location is the former Chittenden Bank office building across from the Middlebury Inn and next to the Court House. The building has some issues, but for the money it could be renovated for the town’s purposes at a fraction of the proposed $6-$10 million. Again, a lack of adequate parking may be the biggest drawback, and with both suggestions the gym has to be built separately.
None of these three suggestions, or any others we could think of, has the architectural impact, however, of building new on the current site.
But at what cost do we pay for high impact architecture?
That’s the conundrum the selectboard has to address, and part of that process will be deciding when to go forward with a proposal. It may take a couple of years or more to get the town’s ducks in a row, which would be a blessing, and passing that much time may just be enough for town residents to forget the recent increases that have added to today’s high taxes in Middlebury.
Then again, the railroad underpasses on Merchants Row and Main Street are a pressing priority and concern (paid largely by out-of-town funds, but with some town expense for associated projects), job creation is essential, South Street residents (and elsewhere) have safety concerns with speeders and are pressing for streetscape solutions, and sidewalks in spots are a disaster — all things that may cause some residents to think that impressive architecture might need to take a back seat to practicality.
Tough sledding, indeed. 

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