UD-3 seeks role in Creek Road gym

MIDDLEBURY — On Feb. 25 voters in the UD-3 school district will decide whether to lease district-owned property off Creek Road to the town of Middlebury for construction of a new community recreation center, and they will then go to the polls on March 4 to decide whether to float a $400,000 bond to finance an 1,800-square-foot addition onto the new center that would house four team rooms, storage space and restrooms.
Members of the UD-3 board on Tuesday overwhelmingly agreed to set those public votes after around 90 minutes of discussion about a project that has generated no shortage of controversy in Addison County’s shire town.
Plans originally called for the 11,500-square-foot recreation center to be sited at Middlebury’s recreation park. But town officials, following a recommendation from an ad hoc steering committee, shifted focus to the 2.75-acre Creek Road parcel when the ID-4 school board flagged several concerns about how the project could affect student safety and parking/traffic circulation at the adjacent Mary Hogan Elementary campus.
Plans also call for a new, 9,400-square-foot Middlebury municipal building to be erected at 77 Main St. The current gym and town office building at 94 Main St. would be razed, with that property — and a town-owned parcel at 6 Cross St. — to be conveyed to Middlebury College. In return, the college would pay the town $5.5 million, of which $4.5 million would be used to draw down the anticipated $6.5 million costs of the new rec center and municipal building. The remaining $1 million would be used to move the college’s Osborne House from 77 Main St. to 6 Cross St., and to clear the 94 Main St. site.
Middlebury voters will determine the fate of the recreation center and town office projects on March 4. Residents in the Addison Central Supervisory Union (ACSU) towns of Bridport, Cornwall, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham, Middlebury and Weybridge will vote on the $400,000 bond for the team rooms addition for the recreation center. ACSU administrators are still considering the term of the bond and have mentioned periods of five or 13 years for the payback.
“This is a town of Middlebury project that we are tagging on to, to our benefit,” UD-3 board member Peter Conlon of Cornwall said of the district’s relationship with the proposed community center.
It’s a relationship that has been the subject of some spirited debate.
Project opponents have voiced concern about the facility’s proposed location outside of the downtown, and whether that might inhibit some potential users — such as small children and seniors — from actively using it. Others have warned that the center — because of its proximity to Middlebury Union middle and high schools — could evolve into a “school gym,” dominated by team practices and scrimmages.
But UD-3 officials on Tuesday sought to allay fears of students flooding a new recreation center. Bill Lawson, principal of MUHS, said he believes “90 percent” of his students’ use of the facility would be confined to the locker room addition. He said the lockers and associated restrooms would be extremely useful for students using the expansive (college-owned) playing fields off Creek Road for such sports as lacrosse and soccer. It was more than a decade ago that UD-3 bought the Creek Road lot from the Middlebury American Legion for around $250,000. It now provides parking for athletes using the adjacent fields. But athletes must now either change in the parking lot or in their vehicles, and often relieve themselves near the Trail Around Middlebury instead of using provided porto-potties, according to Lawson. They also have no structure in which to seek cover during a storm; the old Legion building is dilapidated and has been deemed unusable, Lawson noted.
Sean Farrell, UD-3 activities director, said some student-athletes must now stow their book bags in piles or under playing field benches during practices and contests. When it rains, the books can get soaked, he said.
Farrell added that visiting teams are often surprised to show up and find no designated area in which athletes can change.
“It’s kind of a common courtesy to give (teams) a suitable place to be in,” he said.
Farrell said there are no plans to divert MUHS or MUMS contests to a new recreation center. But he anticipates occasionally asking Middlebury Parks and Recreation Department Director Terri Arnold if there are times during a morning or an early afternoon — when the center is expected to be less used — when students might use some space.
“There will be constant orchestration between us and the town,” Farrell said.
MUMS Principal Patrick Reen said he did not anticipate his students would use the center much.
Chris Huston, project architect with Bread Loaf Corp., showed the latest plans for the new rec. center and how the addition would fit in. He noted the addition would be self-contained, accessible to athletes without having to go through the recreation center. But there would also be a lockable doorway leading from the interior of the addition into the center.
“We have created a building that is as flexible as possible in every space,” Huston said of the center, which would include a main gym, “quiet studio” for yoga and martial arts, a multi-purpose room doubling as a senior center, as well as a kitchenette, two offices, a storage area and restrooms.
UD-3 members seemed generally pleased with the plans, and the fact that the work would include demolition and removal of the old Legion hall — a task that has not fit within the UD-3 budget. Town and school officials have fashioned an 11-point term sheet that calls for, among other things:
• Middlebury and UD-3 to enter into a 25-year lease agreement for the Creek property, renewable for subsequent 25-year terms. The district would not charge the town a fee for the lease.
•  Middlebury to remove the old Legion hall and be responsible for maintaining the new building and associated parking lot. That includes plowing and any future paving of the now-graveled lot.
•  The town and UD-3 to develop a “shared use” agreement for the facility.
Most UD-3 members said they supported the concept of the new center and locker room addition, but were concerned about costs. The board in December endorsed a proposed 2014-2015 UD-3 spending plan of $17,064,799 that reflects a 2.89-percent increase compared to this year. The board opted against substantial personnel cuts in spite of the fact that the district is expected to serve 42 fewer students this fall. The budget maintains existing programming and board members are confident they will see savings through the impending retirement of several veteran teachers this year.
“I don’t see how learning would be helped by (a $400,000 locker room addition),” board member Erik Remsen of Shoreham said.
And ACSU administrators confirmed that debt service on the addition would be counted toward the district’s per-pupil spending liability, per the state’s education funding law. Capital costs associated with schools’ academic projects are not counted toward that liability. But Lawson and ACSU Superintendent Peter Burrows said district voters would not feel a lot of extra pain if they endorse the $400,00 addition. They noted the debt service would be spread among the seven ACSU towns. And Burrows said a major bond floated in 1996 to finance construction of the MUMS building and major MUHS renovations will expire within three years. The ACSU would only have to pay interest on the $400,000 addition bond during the next three years, then take on principal and interest debt when the so-called “big bond” is retired, according to district administrators.
Lawson acknowledged that while the recreation center addition would not correlate to classroom teaching, it should be seen as contributing to students’ overall school experience. He said that currently, 6 percent of each school dollar goes toward athletics. He added he believed students recreational opportunities often help them become better students.
“I tend to look at the high school program as a complete program,” Lawson said. “There is a relationship between those pieces (academic and athletic) that help each other out.”
Board members spent much time on Tuesday deciding how they should frame the land lease and $400,000 bond questions to voters. They said they wanted to be careful to present them in such a way so the land lease could go through without being conditioned on the $400,000 bond passing. Board member Bob Ritter of Middlebury noted UD-3 could vote on a locker room addition at a later date, if the initiative fails on March 4.
“What I would hate to see happen is UD-3 lose use of that building due to four small team rooms,” he said of the danger of linking the two projects in a referendum.
If the land lease fails to win approval on Feb. 25, the proposed recreation center and team rooms addition would of course no longer be on the table.
Not everyone was on board with the project on Tuesday.
Board member Lorraine Morse of Middlebury questioned whether the district should lease the Creek Road land to Middlebury at no cost or instead seek out a buyer in an effort to recoup the $250,000 UD-3 originally paid for the property. Some local residents have raised the prospect of putting an indoor turf field at that site, she noted.
Morse also voiced concerns that the project has advanced “very quickly,” without a lot of public input.
Resident Victoria DeWind said UD-3 stands to benefit a great deal from a recreation center project that will largely be the  responsibility of Middlebury residents.
“I think this is a lopsided deal,” DeWind said. “I think you (UD-3) come out way ahead.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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