Selectboard: Delay in Middlebury town office vote would add $353K to price

MIDDLEBURY — Delaying until next March a vote on new Middlebury municipal offices and a new recreation center could add $353,000 more to the project price tag than if the matter were decided this December, according to new information unveiled on Tuesday by members of a panel charged with mapping out the proposal.
Members of the Middlebury Town Offices and Recreation Facilities Steering Committee included these financial details as part of their latest presentation to the selectboard. Committee members also displayed site maps of the leading recreation center and town office plans, which drew a lot of feedback from more than a dozen audience members — many of whom continued to urge the selectboard to delay the proposed December vote and to revisit the concept of replacing or renovating the existing municipal building and gym at its current location at the intersection of College and South Main streets.
“This is a big deal,” resident and local merchant Barbara Tomb said of the project. She told the board that holding a vote on the issue as soon as December would “give the perception that someone is trying to push something through without everybody being on board.”
The project has been in the works since this past spring, when Selectmen Dean George and Victor Nuovo announced they had approached Middlebury College officials for financial assistance in constructing new town offices and a gym. The college agreed to donate $5.5 million toward a $7.5 million plan calling for a new municipal building to be erected at the site of the college’s Osborne House at 77 Main St., and a new recreation center to be built off Mary Hogan Drive. The Osborne House would be moved to a town-owned parcel off Cross Street. Around $1 million of the $7.5 million would be earmarked for razing the current town office site and moving the Osborne House. In return for its donation, the college is requesting that the town raze the current municipal building and gym and convey the land to the college for use as a public park.
It’s a plan that has elicited much debate in town. Supporters have said they like the idea of creating a new park in town while receiving college assistance for new facilities that would remain in the downtown. Opponents have argued that the current municipal building site is a valuable asset that provides important parking spaces and should not be conveyed to the college, which they argue already owns considerable downtown real estate.
Nuovo, a member of the steering committee, presented the most recent, preferred plan for new town offices. It calls for a two-story, L-shaped structure with a courtyard facing the new downtown roundabout at the intersection of Main and Cross streets. The building includes offices, meeting rooms, a lobby, restroom and other amenities, including an access to the adjacent Ilsley Library building.
Nuovo stressed the new design is not yet complete, that it could change based on public input during the coming weeks.
“The whole point of putting out these designs is not to say, ‘Here it is,’ but to say, ‘Here is what it might be, what do you think?’”
Selectman Nick Artim, also a member of the steering committee, presented the leading site plan for the new recreation center. As reported in this past Monday’s Addison Independent, that plan calls for an 11,400-square-foot, one-story building dominated by a large gym. It would be located just west of the municipal tennis courts and would feature a separate drop-off circle, so as not to encourage drop-offs at the already busy Mary Hogan Elementary School nearby. The new building would feature offices for the Parks and Recreation Department, storage, a multi-purpose room that would double as a senior center, changing rooms and a “quiet studio” for yoga and martial arts.
Artim said a second phase of the project could be implemented when more funds are available. That second phase might include a turf field and parking improvements to the Mary Hogan School lot.
“The structures of play surround the fields of play,” Artim said of the layout.
Artim also presented construction timetables prepared by Bread Loaf Corp. for both projects, showing the implications of having a referendum on Dec. 11 versus on Town Meeting Day, which falls on March 4, 2014.
A Dec. 11 affirmative vote could lead to bidding next April/Mary, when he said contractors are typically aggressive in bidding for work. Construction could then begin in June, enabling the buildings to be buttoned up before next winter for an anticipated completion by June 2015, according to Artim.
A March 4, 2014, vote, according to Artim, would set the stage for bidding in July/August, when he said local contractors are often busy and therefore likely to submit higher bids. The town could expect bids that are $250,000 higher than if the bidding had occurred in the spring, Artim said. And the resulting construction schedule would require extensive winter work, according to Artim, which he said could add $103,000 to construction costs. Project completion would be in September 2015, after the schools have opened, he added.
“We see a potential of $353,000 added to the cost of delaying the vote,” Artim said. “The cost of materials goes up.”
Residents at Tuesday’s meeting voiced concerns about both the recreation facility and town office proposals.
Resident Ellen Oxfeld said it would be unwise for the town to pursue the recreation center off Mary Hogan Drive without including the related improvements to the Mary Hogan School parking lot. She compared the costs of excluding parking to purchasing a computer without getting the requisite software, cables and other necessities to make the system fully functional.
“Both sites need to include the costs of parking if they become operational,” Oxfeld said.
George said he believed that in the short-term, current school spaces, along with those available at the nearby Addison County Courthouse and Memorial Sports Center, could meet the needs of those using the recreation center.
Resident Michael Olinick urged the selectboard to refocus its attention on building new town offices and a recreation center on the present site. He noted the selectboard abandoned the notion of rebuilding the town offices and gym at their current location after estimates showed such a project would cost around $10 million. He questioned how the town could build two separate structures at two different locations for $6.5 million.
“What did we lose in that $4 million (difference) and how much do we save if the two buildings are adjacent on the same site?” Olinick asked, noting the capacity to have shared heating/plumbing systems. “It seems to me we could do the project on this site for $5 million.”
George said that even if a project could be done at the current site for $5 million, it is a price that the town would have to pay on its own. If the new rec center and town offices are built off site, townspeople would only be responsible for $2 million, he said, because of the college aid.
Olinick acknowledged that point, but noted the town could phase in the two buildings to mitigate the impact of the debt payments. For example, he said the town could first build the town offices and then later build the gym.
“It seems to me there should be another option we could offer,” he said.
Resident Ross Conrad said Middlebury’s town plan calls for maintaining the town offices and gym at their current location.
“Explain how the board reconciles the position of moving the municipal building to a new site with the town plan,” he said.
Nuovo acknowledged the town plan directive and said selectboard members only strayed from that path when they learned the price of rebuilding on-site and came to the conclusion that it was too much for local taxpayers to bear.
“We thought, ‘We can’t ask taxpayers to approve $10 million for this project,’” Nuovo said, adding the board thought it imprudent to defer the project for a future generation.
Olinick, Tomb and other residents urged the selectboard to delay a project vote beyond December. George said the board is prepared to take that action if advised to do so by those working on the plans.
“If our steering committee and our design-build team think we are not going to be ready to make a proposal to consider that is adequately prepared, there is no reason to go forward; we will wait,” George said. “But it is not a decision that should be made by folks who are not actively working on this project; it’s got to come from (the steering committee), and I think it will, if that’s what needs to be done.”
Steering committee member John Barstow said he believes more time is needed.
“There are other members (of the committee) that are pretty nervous, feeling rushed about something this complicated,” Barstow said. He said he was disappointed that the project timetable showing the financial implications of delaying a vote “never even tried to quantify the importance of public knowledge. It should be in there. For this project to succeed, the public needs to understand it really well, and they need to understand this has pros and cons and some tradeoffs. It’s not just a win-win. For voters to be properly educated to make responsible votes, I feel it can’t be done in (the December) timeframe.”
In other town office/rec. center action on Tuesday, the selectboard endorsed a “term sheet” outlining the basis of an agreement it hopes to negotiate with Middlebury College regarding the project. The term sheet spells out the framework of the deal and its many working parts — the relocation of the Osborne House, the conveyance of the town office/gym site to the college and the financial contribution the institution would make. The board amended the term sheet to clearly state that the college would be expected to maintain a park at the site in perpetuity, not simply for the long-term. Some selectboard members and citizens feared that the absence of the word “perpetuity” might someday open the door for the college to build a structure at the site.
The board rejected an amendment by Selectwoman Susan Shashok that would have directed the college to preserve public parking at the town offices/gym site. Other board members said they believed this rule might close the door on the college potentially expanding the park some day after finding replacement parking nearby.
Board members voted 5-1 in favor of the term sheet, with Selectman Craig Bingham opposed and Selectman Travis Forbes absent.
“I remain unalterably opposed to conveying this property to the college,” Bingham said, in explaining his ‘no’ vote.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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