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Clippings: Town office plan on the table is best option

AT&T has been running TV ads for its cellphone service in which a guy sits down with a bunch of six-year-old kids and asks them questions like, “Is faster better than slower?” and “Is more better than less?”
They all eventually come up with the right answer, and then the voice-over guy comes on and reads the tagline: “It’s not complicated.”
These ads came to mind when my colleague John Flowers broke the news that town and Middlebury College officials had reached a tentative deal, one that could solve the thorny problem of how to renovate or replace our decrepit old town hall at a cost of 2 cents on our tax rate instead of 7.5 cents or more.
Let’s see, roughly $50 a year of new taxes on my home, or about $190? Which is better for a deal that will provide a new town office still in the heart of downtown, plus a gym in a better location?
It’s not complicated.
Well, OK, the deal — it’s important to note it was struck after town officials approached the college, not vice versa — is a bit complex.
The town gets:
•  $5.5 million toward a $7.5 million project that includes both a two-story, 8,000-to-9,000-square-foot building, and a gym near the town pool and Memorial Sports Center.
•  The site next to the Ilsley Library for the new town hall. 
The college gets:
•  The current town hall and its site. The town will demolish the former high school (what is left of it after a fire 60 years ago) and replace it with some sort of park that will serve also as a grander, more defined entrance to the college grounds. 
•  The town-owned site at the corner of Cross and Water streets, to which the town will move the building that now sits next to the Ilsley.
In a related agreement, the town will also get better access to the Marble Works because the college will buy the Lazarus building on Printers Alley, which will be removed, in exchange for now vacant town-owned land between the Ilsley and Otter Creek. Getting that land and matching it with abutting college land will allow college officials to launch an economic development project.
There are many hurdles to clear before these plans can become a reality. For the sake of this discussion, let’s say the deals have the legs to do so. 
So, should residents back this deal?
Well, not according to a few folks who have written to this paper. Normally, I agree with many of their points of view, but not in this case.
A June 17 letter called “distressing” that the “design and financing study” that the town undertook to create a plan for a new town hall “has been for naught” if Middlebury goes for this deal.
But as John Flowers reported, during the research phase, “A fundraising consultant told a local ad hoc panel that raising the $6 million to $10 million for the project (a new town hall without college help) would be a Herculean task.” So, essentially, the study discovered we couldn’t afford a new building. I’d call this deal listening to the result.
The letter also urged us to “keep considering alternative financing.” After the years the selectboard has spent turning over every stone, $5.5 million in our hands is worth a lot of alternative financing in the bush.
It also claimed the new town building would have “no space for town meeting.” True on the face of it, but the statement ignores the fact meetings are now held in a gym that will be replaced and could be held in a new one with better parking.
The letter also claims “our current facility is a community center,” and praises one earlier plan that selectmen considered by stating “our downtown vitality would be strengthened by all that was to be offered to our community in these buildings,” and it would create a “center for our community that says ‘This is Middlebury.’”
Sounds enticing, but so does a two-story building a couple hundred yards from the current one, with views of our lovely new bridge and park.
The letter also states that “Past votes by our citizens have rejected such offers” by the college. Fine, let’s see if they reject this one, then.
Selectman Craig Bingham also weighed in with a June 20 letter. He states, “downtown space is at a premium,” and that it would be shortsighted to lock up land with a park.
Well, one reason to say yes is the side deal that would better incorporate the Marble Works into downtown. That arrangement would also allow the college to develop the land it owns between Main Street and Otter Creek, also allowing downtown to expand. I would say a more inclusive view of Middlebury’s downtown answers this objection.
Bingham also fears the site would prevent future expansion of Ilsley Library and the town office building. But according to U.S. Census data, Middlebury has grown little, if any, over the past two decades. Meanwhile, the future of libraries is a move into the digital age. Where would be the great need to expand town offices or the Ilsley?
Bingham also worries about parking. But no gym means less demand, the lot behind Mister Up’s is rarely used, and past plans for development between Main Street and Otter Creek include an underground parking garage.
And yes, parking at the rec park is, as Bingham writes, “already heavily used,” but with smart scheduling conflicts with the rink can be avoided, not to mention courthouse and Mary Hogan School parking can be added into the after-hours mix. More space to create new parking is probably available as well.
Finally, Bingham also proposes using two potential future revenue sources to help pay for a new town office building on the current site. One is Phase Two of the gas line to International Paper, and the other is extra local option tax revenue dedicated to Cross Street Bridge maintenance. We don’t need the college donation, he suggests, because those sources will support a $5.8 million bond.
But that funding — if available — would be better dedicated to other needs, like taking care of our infrastructure, lowering taxes or making payments on our $4.625 million fire bond. Walking away from $5.5 million is not a smart choice for a town with one of Vermont’s highest tax rates.
Finally, some probably worry that the college is driving this deal. But the town approached the college, and the town has said no to the college in the past when propositions didn’t make sense. 
This is simply a situation where everybody wins. It’s not complicated.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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