Editorial: Creating a town jewel in Middlebury

One of the legitimate uses of town tax dollars is the creation of public space in the form of parks, town recreation areas and perservation of historic areas or structures that would otherwise fall into decay. To that end, a worthy deal is in the making through which the Middlebury Area Land Trust would deed to the town the historic powerhouse at the north end of the Otter Creek falls in downtown Middlebury.
The transaction is an even up trade — MALT divests itself of the property and the town takes it over (with no dollar payment) — but with a town pledge to allocate $19,400 (the assessed value of the land) to be used to stablize the deteriorating structure and develop a strategy for managing the property. Formal terms of the proposed deal will be drawn up and discussed at the selectboard’s Sept. 9 meeting.
The proposition comes at an opportune time. With the completion of the initial phase of the Riverfront Park this fall — the bank on the Marble Works side of the creek has been stabilized and planted, walkways are finished, a small amphitheater provides comfortable seating, trees have been planted, historic lighted markers are in place and new grass has recently been seeded — attention now shifts to two other areas: 1) the bank running from the historic powerhouse along the northern side of the creek to the footbridge, and 2) the area behind the back of the commercial block dominated by the National Bank of Middlebury on south to the Battell Street Bridge.
Improvements to the historic powerhouse would set the stage for broader improvements to both of these areas. In 1998, when MALT took ownership of the property, it had plans to stabilize the existing walls and build an observation deck with interpretive displays highlighting Middlebury’s rich history of its marble works and other industry in the area. For a small nonprofit, that vision exceeded its pocketbook and any improvements have remained out of reach.
If the proposal is approved, the town will be limited only by its imagination and its ability to raise funds to turn what is now a jumble of trash and overgrown trees, poison ivy and shrubs that surround the powerhouse (and northwest to the new trails) into a green space that allows for public access and use. And because people are naturally drawn to the river’s edge, it seems ideal to have a limited boardwalk (where needed) that provides access to the rocky ledges that jut out into the creek from the walking trails that descend from near the footbridge.
That will mean the town and state Agency of Natural Resources will have to work together to determine the best ways to keep that area of the creek (the 150 yards or so from the falls to the footbridge) free of trash and river flotsam — ideally moving debris downstream, while preserving the river habitat that is there today.
Fortunately, the town has a ready source of funding to get started. The initial $19,400 would come from the town’s Land Conservation Fund, which is ideally suited for such work and is already built into the town budget. Such projects are also ideal for individual donations and bequests. Over $100,000 of private money was raised to help complete the first phase of the Riverfront Park, and it’s reasonable to think that such worthy improvements would also attract future donations.
Town selectmen are right to take on preservation of the powerhouse, and will hopefully encourage others to continue their work on improving this park. The goal is to make the area below the falls to the footbridge, on both sides of the creek, a community place to gather and revel in a scenic downtown park that could become one of the jewels of Vermont.
— Angelo S. Lynn

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