Editorial: Proposal offers Middlebury a way to leapfrog obstacles

Another seismic swift in the Middlebury landscape has landed on the town’s doorstep after several months of study and determination yielded a mutually beneficial and generous response to the town by Middlebury College and that board of trustees. It’s a proposal, as always, that requires a studied review, but it shouldn’t take long to discern its financial advantages to town taxpayers.
What they’ll find is the offer resolves several major hurdles the town was facing — all with the least impact on town taxes.
Consider what the town was facing:
• For the past three years, and on-and-off for the past 20 or more, town officials have mulled over just what to do with the municipal building. It’s 102 years old, suffered a major fire about 60 years ago, is an energy hog and some have considered it an eyesore for decades. To spruce it up and solve just the basic problems would cost about $3 million, and it would still be a half-baked, old and inefficient building in terms of space utilization and energy use. Putting $3 million into a renovation would still be a Band-Aid on an older structure that would, in the not too distant future, need to be extensively renovated again, if not torn down and built anew.
• A new building on that same site was pegged at $6 million to $10 million, but $6 million would have met the minimum standards. An ad hoc finance committee looked at various ways to reduce the town’s tax burden for such a structure, but the bottom line was that residents would be paying the bulk of the cost; that would have followed the 4.6 cent tax increase residents just endured to build the new town firehalls. Adding more to the tax rate wasn’t palatable; better to let the building slowly crumble and just pay the outrageous fuel bills.
• Adding to municipal obligations, the town was preparing to buy the Lazarus Building at the head of Printer’s Alley (between the bank and the post office on Main Street) in the next two years to create a safer pedestrian walkway into the Marble Works Business District and to make a better connection to the downtown center. The appraised valued was pegged at $287,000, so somewhere close to that amount could have been expected — also paid by tax dollars.
There was no easy way to make all this happen without a pretty significant rise in the property tax rates, and postponing any of the projects only kicked the can down the road. The piper was going to come calling sooner or later, and the Lazarus Building had to be settled by the time the railway underpasses are rebuilt in 2014-15.
That’s the story and the conundrum the town shared with Middlebury College officials. To its credit, the college engaged in a dialogue that eventually created many mutual benefits and strengthens the town-college bond. (See stories Page 1A.)
The gist of the proposal is for the college to purchase the land and building on which the municipal building and gymnasium sits for $5.5 million; to raze the building and create a park or green space in its place. Further, to relocate the Osborne House (adjacent to Ilsley Library) to a corner lot just on the eastern side of the Crosss Street Bridge (off Water Street) and use the former Osborne space to build a new, energy-efficient 8,000-9,000 square foot, two-story municipal building. Finally, the College also offered to pay for the Lazarus Building in exchange for the town granting the college the town-owned lot on which relocate the Osborne House and a small parcel of land behind the Ilsley Library that adjoins college-owned land at the base of the bridge to better enable the College to market that space for a commercial building.
Because the total cost of rebuilding the municipal building next to the library and building a new gym next to the town swimmng pool, tennis courts and hockey rink is projected to cost about $7.5 million, town residents will still be asked to pony-up about $2 million, or about 2 cents on the tax rate to pay down a bond of that size, but that’s two-thirds less than any other option — and it represents another sweetheart deal for Middlebury residents.
The argument against the proposal is two-fold: the current site is the best the town could possibly find and too good to give up at any cost, and, regardless of the pain, there must be a way to afford the $6-plus million the town has to raise through taxes.
The counter to that argument is just as direct: Most selectboard members and committee members who worked on the proposal for the past year agreed with the first part of the argument, and tried for several months to figure out a way that the projects could be financed to avoid a burdensome spike in property taxes. That prove unattainable, however, and in the true art of compromise, the current proposal is what proved feasible and mutually beneficial arrangement to all involved.
In addition to proposing a financial resolution to the community, the college proposal also sets these projects into high gear — moving what might have taken several more years to accomplish into a faster-paced spotlight. That’s all good news for Middlebury’s downtown and for the community’s image as an up-and-coming mid-sized Vermont city with a lot going on and an energy-efficient community center to showcase its embrace of the new as it heralds its connections to the past.
Interestingly, the site — with a municipal center looking toward the college and perched on the corner of the Cross Street Bridge and Main Street — highlights its very direct connection to the town’s college and the 211-year history they share. As Middlebury College President Ron Liebowitz said so well, “If you believe the health of the town is linked to the health of the college and vice versa, then it is an easy project to see.”
Angelo S. Lynn

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