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Decision on Middlebury rec center option likely this week

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury school and municipal officials could decide this week on whether to propose a new, 11,500-square-foot recreation center on a site off Creek Road or on recreation park property next to Mary Hogan Elementary School.
The Town Offices & Recreation Facility Steering Committee will be taking up the issue at its meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 17, at 10:30 a.m. in the municipal building at 94 Main St. The selectboard will also meet on Dec. 17, at 7 p.m., to receive an update on the committee’s discussion and recommendations. Then, on Wednesday, Dec. 18, the UD-3 school board is scheduled to meet and could act on an official request from the town to use the Creek Road site (which is owned by UD-3), if presented with that scenario.
At the same time, the steering committee and selectboard could declare a preference to go with what had been the original choice — a site off Mary Hogan Drive. But that site has drawn some concerns from the ID-4 school board, which oversees the property. Chief among those concerns has been the impact a recreation center could have on the safety of children and some already hectic traffic and parking conditions at the adjacent Mary Hogan Elementary School. Current plans do not reflect dedicated parking for the recreation center at the Mary Hogan Drive site. Project organizers believe surrounding lots — including those maintained by Mary Hogan, the Memorial Sports Center and county courthouse — could satisfy parking needs pending a future “Phase II” project, costing upwards of $450,000, to add additional spaces and implement parking and traffic circulation upgrades on Mary Hogan School property.
But selectboard and school board officials continue to receive appeals from some residents to dismiss both the Creek Road and Mary Hogan Drive sites and simply rebuild the town offices and gym at their current spot at 94 Main St. Current plans call for that parcel to be acquired by Middlebury College in a complex deal that would ultimately net the town $5.5 million from the institution that would in part help finance new municipal offices at 77 Main St. and a new recreation center.
Resident Ron Kohn, at a Dec. 10 selectboard meeting, said officials should revisit past studies on the current town offices and gym; he said those structures could be rehabbed cost-effectively. Current plans reflect a taxpayer commitment of $2 million for the new town offices and recreation center. Kohn referenced past studies of the buildings and argued the town could be better off ordering additional studies that could justify fixing its current assets and not selling what he and others argued is an important and valuable town asset.
“I think to trash the site and the building (would be unwise) when we don’t know that it’s a requirement and it looks like putting this together would net dollars, cost less than the architectural and site preparation fees on the new buildings,” Kohn said. “I would ask that it be revisited.”
Resident Ben Burd agreed, inquiring specifically about an engineering study for the municipal building.
“I think we would be remiss in not doing that study now,” Burd said. “If the studies come out bad, too bad; if they come out good, maybe we have a shot at it.”
But a majority of the selectboard argued that they had already commissioned studies to get a handle on the condition of both buildings. Selectboard Chairman Dean George said the board specifically explored the potential of keeping the two buildings on the current site — a priority cited in the town plan — but they could not make it work economically.
“As we proceeded with professionals who had been hired to work with us, it became more and more apparent that putting more money into renovating this building was going to be as expensive or more expensive than removing and improving this structure,” George said. “At that point, a majority of the board supported discontinuing the study of what could be done with this structure and focus on a new structure on this site.”
George said the town spent $50,000 exploring the development of a better heating system for the municipal building and gym, and it was money that “went down the tubes.”
So the board shifted gears and looked at erecting a new municipal building and preserving the gym on-site. A majority of the board abandoned that scenario when project cost estimates came in at $8 million to $10 million, according to George.
“The reason (that plan) didn’t go forward is that the board agreed that was too much for the town to support,” George said. “In order to proceed, we had to look at other options.”
George noted the town has for more than a decade been looking into either refurbishing its municipal building or constructing a new one. A history of that effort can be found on the town’s Website, townofmiddlebury.org.
But residents at the selectboard’s meeting encouraged board members to revisit other project options before Town Meeting Day.
“I think Middlebury has a cash flow problem and a money problem and that throwing away valuable land and valuable property and (incurring) additional expense is off the wall,” Kohn said.
Middlebury voters, Kohn argued, should have a choice of project options on Town Meeting Day, with one of them being to keep the municipal building and gym at their present location.
“This isn’t North Korea,” he said.
Resident Ellen Oxfeld agreed on the notion of widening the project search.
“I have heard that scuttlebutt from many people in town, saying ‘We would like options,’” Oxfeld said. Such options, she said, might include repairing the gym and building new facilities in stages.
Resident Ross Conrad suggested that if the board doesn’t provide voters with another project option, that it at least get a quote on another option to provide financial context for the Town Meeting Day referendum. Such a financial quote, he said, could serve as a comparison, “So that when people vote on the option you are going to present them, they are fully informed and can make a very good decision. That, I think, is really critical.”
Selectman Nick Artim noted the Town Offices & Recreation Facility Steering Committee, with the help of Bread Loaf Corp., is preparing some new cost estimates for renovating and building on-site, based on the current construction market.
Such information figures to be of great assistance to taxpayers, according to Selectwoman Susan Shashok.
“The numbers being used to justify this proposal are being questioned,” she said. “That’s what I’m trying to get vetted ahead of time, with people that can actually work together. I don’t see what’s wrong with that.”
Resident John Barstow, a member of the steering committee, agreed the town needs to furnish some better numbers.
“We’ve got to do a better job getting all the facts on the table,” he said. “It is the ultimate responsibility of elected officials to inform the voters thoroughly and carefully. Getting only part of the story out leaves us open to skepticism. We want to build trust in a process.”
Ruth Hardy, chairwoman of the ID-4 board and a steering committee member, said she hopes the discussion has a change in focus.
“One of the things that really concerns me about the whole conversation and has from the very beginning is that we’re talking so much about buildings and we’re talking so very little about people and the needs of our town,” Hardy said. She recommended that officials determine what the town’s recreation needs are, and then develop a structure to accommodate those needs.
Resident Donna Donahue said she believes the community should proceed with a Town Meeting Day referendum on a new municipal building and recreation center and let the chips fall where they may.
“I think the voters of Middlebury and the taxpayers of Middlebury — not just this room — have a right to weigh in,” Donahue said. “You could study alternatives for the next five years … You can crunch numbers forever.”
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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