Committee girds for information blitz on Middlebury town office proposal

MIDDLEBURY — A group planning Middlebury’s proposed new town offices and recreation center is planning a series of public meetings, open houses, flyers and a documentary film to educate residents about the $7.5 million project in anticipation of a March 4, 2014, referendum.
The Middlebury Town Offices & Recreation Facility Steering Committee has identified several organizations and groups that it will approach during the next three months to solicit feedback and provide the latest information on the town office-recreation project. The project involves building a new municipal building in place of Middlebury College’s Osborne House at 77 Main St. The Osborne House would be relocated to a town-owned parcel on Cross Street. A new recreation center would be built off Mary Hogan Drive, though officials are now also considering a site off Creek Road for the 11,400-square-foot facility. The college would offer $5.5 million in aid toward the project in return for the current municipal building-gym site at the intersection of College and South Main streets. That site would be cleared and turned into a park.
The plan has already generated a lot of feedback — both positive and negative — and the steering committee is looking for additional comments. The committee wants to hold a community “pizza party” in early January to offer tours of the municipal building and gym, as well as review plans for the new facilities. But the panel realizes it has a lot of work to do before that meeting. Bread Loaf Corp. architects are expected to produce, as soon as this week, comparisons of past cost estimates for renovating and/or re-building the gym and municipal building at the current site, versus the current proposed project.
Committee members on Nov. 12 tentatively agreed to pursue a public information campaign that calls for sessions with the ID-4 school board later this month and with the Better Middlebury Partnership in early December. There will be sessions with the general public on Dec. 9 and an as-yet unscheduled date in January, as well as on Feb. 3, Feb. 10 and March 3 (town meeting). Plans call for additional outreach from mid-January to early February with such groups as the Rotary and Lions clubs; the Middlebury Fire Department; the Middlebury Energy Committee; the Lodge at Otter Creek and Eastview retirement communities; the VFW and Middlebury Legion Post 27; and East Middlebury’s Prudential Committee.
Officials have also vowed to create poster boards, write articles and go door-to-door to further explain the project this winter.
Members of the committee said the project information will focus on getting voters as educated as possible on the proposal before they head to the polls on Tuesday, March 4.
“We need to be getting more data out there that can be used by the public in making a decision,” committee member Ruth Hardy said at the Nov. 12 meeting. She lamented the fact that the town has to date accumulated little data on the use of the municipal gym, a facility that fellow member Nancy Malcolm called “very fully subscribed and used well.”
John Barstow, another member of the committee, stressed the need to let people know about all the working parts of the project and not just the dimensions of the new town offices and recreation facility. That means carefully explaining the relocation of the Osborne House and the conversion of the current town offices site into a park.
“For voters to be educated, they need to know what else is happening,” Barstow said, also referencing a related deal calling for the college to acquire, clear and convey the Lazarus building property to the town in return for some town-owned property behind the Ilsley Library. The college plans to combine that property with some of its own contiguous real estate and market it for an as-yet undefined economic development project.
The committee has already drafted some responses to “frequently asked questions” (FAQ) residents might have about the project. Those responses cover such issues as:
•  Impact on property taxes. The town’s $2 million share of the project cost would add 2 cents to the local property tax rate, resulting in an extra $20 in tax liability per $100,000 in property value.
•  Parking. Spaces surrounding the current municipal building site would be retained, while officials plan to reorganize existing parking behind the Ilsley Library and new town offices at 77 Main St.
•  Recent history about the project. The FAQ narrative alludes to a 2012 estimate indicating a $10.6 million price tag for renovating the municipal gym and replacing the town offices on-site.
“This option was not supported by the selectboard,” the narrative reads. “In light of the increases to the tax rate associated with the police department, fire department and highway bond, and anticipating other town funding priorities in the coming years, the current $2 million bond proposal was deemed to be a responsible town tax burden.”
•  Uses for the recreation facility. In addition to accommodating all current gym programming and parks and recreation department staff, accommodations would be made for current gym tenants. The Russ Sholes Senior Center would share space in the facility while Addison Central Teens would be offered the warming hut at the town’s recreation park.
Some residents at the steering committee’s Nov. 12 meeting voiced concerns about how citizens would be able to influence the current project design between now and the March 4 vote.
“You’re walking a razor’s edge telling (voters) what’s going to happen while asking for their suggestions,” said resident John Freidin. “If you make it seem like ‘This is it,’ it’s going to backfire on you.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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