Editorial: About as good as it gets

What’s apparent in the quandary over where to locate a new recreational facility in Middlebury is that neither site is perfect, nor would any site likely be.
Unless you’re a billionaire building a vacation home and money is not an obstacle, the idea of “perfection” in a building project is an oxymoron. Rather, building almost anything is an act of a thousand compromises that eventually yield a structure that fits the need and is “pretty darn good.” Make it a public building limited by taxation of a small town, and the expectations have to be tempered by reality.
With the current town hall and recreational facilities project, the realities of cost, location and function will be the measure that either meets taxpayer approval or is rejected. The task of the Steering Committee overseeing this project, and of the selectboard, is to propose a project that balances those realities well enough to garner public approval.
When comparing the two proposed sites—adjacent to Mary Hogan Elementary School or at the site of the former American Legion on Creek Road—the steering committee is thoroughly considering the pros and cons before making a decision. In three stories in today’s Addison Independent, reporter John Flowers examines the issue and lays out the current discussion, complete with a 15-point comparison of the two projects. The steering committee has said it will recommend its preferred site to the selectboard on Dec. 17.
Among the 15-plus points of comparison, here are a few that may tip the balance:
• Siting the recreation facility on the Mary Hogan parcel would require a more permanent fix to current parking limitations and traffic flow. Currently that is not in the budget, and would necessitate a phase-2 project a year later estimated at $450,000 to solve the potential problem. ID-4 board members were outspoken in their initial opposition to a two-phase approach and would not likely approve the project as proposed. We agree. It makes little sense to design a building project that has a $450,000 problem that won’t be fixed for another year, and that’s depending on voter approval. If that’s the chosen site, taxpayers ought to fund the traffic and parking solution in the initial bond vote.
If the traffic and parking issues are not resolved in the initial phase, the steering committee might expect opposition from voters who reject the two-phrase approach and don’t want to inconvenience ID-4 patrons for the two years of construction. Because that is counter to the selectboard’s desire to see the project approved, the site becomes less desirable.
• On the other hand, building the recreation facility on the Creek Road site would not only help the UD-3 school district rid itself of an untenable building (the former Legion), but would provide an opportunity for the school to add on needed facilities for current athletic programs. The school district has said it would pay for those additional facilities, making the recreational building even more useful and accommodating. On the surface, that scenario certainly seems like a win-win to town and school district taxpayers alike.
The site also has the advantage of not hindering day-to-day school activities during the construction process, while also being on a lot that allows for future expansion. When building for the long term, having the ability to expand the community’s recreational facility would seem prudent.
Most of the other drawbacks of the Creek Road site—not as pedestrian friendly, lack of existing playgrounds, lighting—are comparatively minor (whether someone walks four blocks or five, for instance, or whether the town or school shares in lighting expense, or adding a playground years hence) and can be readily resolved.
As for a possible teen center, locating at the Creek Road site might mean finding a new space for that group within the recreational building (an ideal location between the middle school and high school) or another option. That’s certainly an issue that should be more thoroughly discussed, but neither is it a deal-breaker. If the current option was to put the teen center in the warming hut, the space need is obviously not that great and reasonable options should be plentiful.
Through it all, the goal is to create facilities that represent the town well, while fulfilling the town’s needs. No site or project will be perfect, but right now the town has the opportunity to propose a project that is darn good, improves energy efficiency within two municipal buildings that are current energy hogs, and reduces the taxpayer burden by more than two-thirds compared to any other proposal that could deliver as much.
In public works projects, that’s about as good as it gets.
Angelo S. Lynn

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