Greg Dennis: A college gift worth considering

There’s an old saying that you shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
It comes to mind now that Middlebury College has offered two interconnected gifts to the town. To simplify the terms, these gifts come in the form of most of the money to build a new municipal building and gym, while also paving the way for an appealing transition between Main Street and the Marble Works.
Those steps would, at an apparently affordable cost to Middlebury taxpayers, substantially improve downtown Middlebury, its recreational facilities and its town offices.
What would Middlebury College get for the astounding amount of nearly $6 million it’s willing to pledge to the town?
The college would gain an economically stronger ally in the town and the ability to spin off, for commercial development, land the college owns between the Ilsley Library and Otter Creek. The deals would strengthen the already strong ties between town and gown. And the new municipal facilities should garner the college a lot of good will among residents of Middlebury and nearby towns.
Plus — and this is the quirkiest part of the proposal — the college would achieve its long-coveted goal of a more appealing entrance on the town side of campus. The old municipal building would be knocked down and the land cleared to create a public park.
In fact, the real driver behind the college’s generosity may be the desire to create a more stately gateway to its campus.
Middlebury residents certainly should look this gift horse in the mouth, to make sure it’s got all its teeth.
But it’s hard to see how this is anything but a good deal for the town.
Without the college’s money and support, there’s no other financially viable option to replace the crumbling town offices and municipal gym. Middlebury can’t even afford to complete the long-held goal of purchasing the rusting old Lazarus building, which intrudes between Main Street and the increasingly popular Marble Works and the new riverside park.
With the college’s financial support — $5.5 million toward the estimated cost of $7.5 million for a new town hall and gym, plus an additional amount to buy and remove the Lazarus building (it’s assessed by the town at $287,000) — all that becomes possible.
There are other elements to the proposals, including relocation of the Osborne House that is used for faculty housing. The building would move from its current spot adjacent to the library, over to the vacant Cross Street lot where the Unitarian Universalist building once stood.
Two huge hurdles have already been cleared, now that the college board of trustees and a majority of the Middlebury selectboard support the proposals.
The biggest remaining hurdle — other than determining how well the creaky old Osborne House will hold together when it’s moved — is how all this will sit with Middlebury voters.
An earlier proposal to rework the college entrance fell short with voters, in part over concerns about losing access to the town gym.
The gym itself is an historical anomaly. It’s tied to the town offices because the town took over a structure built a century ago as the high school. Since then the building has endured a major fire and been chopped virtually in half, with its top story gone.
These fresh proposals would provide a new town gym in a better location, near the existing town tennis courts, pool and hockey rink. New town offices would be built where Osborne House now stands.
The voters’ decision on these ambitious plans will likely turn on several questions.
The most ordinary and obvious one is parking. It’s not always easy to find a convenient spot to park in downtown Middlebury. To gain majority voter support for these plans, town and college officials will have to show the voters how parking can be improved, not worsened, by these otherwise very promising plans.
The proposed commercial development behind the library would no doubt be required to add more parking. But that development will come, if at all, after the voters have spoken about the current proposals.
Another question is the eventual nature of any commercial development.
But revitalizing downtown Middlebury, whose small businesses have struggled in recent years, is a widely held goal. Tastefully done retail and commercial space behind the library — again with added parking — could provide a boost for nearby businesses stretching from Aubuchon Hardware to the Noonie sandwich shop.
Some voters may remain skeptical of the college’s motives, no matter how good these deals look. It’s natural to worry about the 800-pound gorilla next door, even when he’s friendly.
But the college has demonstrated that it wants to be and is a good neighbor to the town. We’ve seen that repeatedly, as the college supplied $9 million to build the new bridge, purchased and kept the old stone mill building alive, and pledged not to negatively affect the Cornwall tax base with its acquisition of the Will Jackson property west of campus.
So if the college wants to continue its generosity and build a lovely little park that will better display some graceful old buildings and a beautiful campus — well, then, Middlebury voters should consider these proposals with an open mind and an eye to all the possibilities.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @greengregdennnis.

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