Youths back teen center move

MIDDLEBURY — Young people who avail themselves of the Middlebury-area teen center said a potential move to a new space would come with some tradeoffs, but they do see pluses in the facility’s proposed relocation from 94 Main St. to the “warming hut” on the town’s recreation park.
Similarly, directors and administrators of the center say the move would not present an ideal situation, but it could bring some new programming opportunities and amenities that local youths are prepared to embrace.
At issue is a proposal to raze the current Middlebury municipal building and gym at 94 Main St. and replace those structures elsewhere in town. Specifically, new town offices would be built at 77 Main St., while a recreation center would be built at the former American Legion site off Creek Road. It’s a plan that has several moving parts (see related stories, Page 1A), would involve $5.5 million in revenues from Middlebury College, and is to be decided by voters this coming Town Meeting Day, March 4.
The teen center, run by Addison Central Teens (ACT), has for several years been located in the lower level of 94 Main St. The center, with an annual budget of around $90,000, has offered a safe, supervised place for teens from the Addison Central Supervisory Union (ACSU) towns to hang out, recreate, or study for a few hours after school. The center also organizes occasional special events, such as dances, and a summer camp.
ACT receives a combined total of $40,000 in annual support from the seven ACSU towns that feed Middlebury Union middle and high schools. The town of Middlebury provides $30,000 of that annual support.
When discussions of razing the current municipal building began last spring, teen center users and directors understandably began to become concerned about their program’s future. The town of Middlebury has allowed the center to use a portion of its town office/gym basement free of charge. The teen center was not designed into the new town office plans, but municipal officials pledged to find alternative space. Specifically, they offered use of the town’s “warming hut,” a small building that, among other things, has provided changing facilities for users of the adjacent Memorial Sports Center. But the sports center has since added locker rooms, freeing up the hut for other uses — such as the teen center.
ACT members had — and still have — some mixed feelings about the warming hut. It has 1,050 square feet of space, considerably less than ACT currently has at its disposal at 94 Main St. It, of course, does not offer the convenience of an upstairs gym and is not centrally located downtown near the Ilsley Library and area stores in which to buy snacks, a fact that has been cited by parents and teens through social media and letters to the editor.
But teen center officials said they also see pluses in the potential new recreation park location. Among them: Nearby playing fields, tennis courts and basketball hoops for outdoor play during the spring and fall, a ground-level facility with natural lighting, and perhaps most intriguing — the potential for a new skate park that could be located near the warming hut. Middlebury-area Masons have pledged $30,000 for a local skate park, Lodge Secretary Jim Ross confirmed on Tuesday.
The Masons have not yet approached the ID-4 school board, which has authority over the recreation park property.
Middlebury resident John Barstow chairs the ACT board. He said he realizes the organization couldn’t count on Middlebury building a new teen center and sees the town’s offering of the warming hut offer as an important gesture.
“We feel very good about their understanding the importance (of a designated space) for the teens,” Barstow said. “We’re really grateful for both the acknowledgement that we need space that is designated and for the years of support from Middlebury and the surrounding towns.”
He acknowledged that ACT directors and teens were initially concerned about being “orphaned” when siting for the new recreation center shifted from the recreation park to the Creek Road parcel. Supporters saw the teen center and new recreation facility as having a symbiotic relationship. But Barstow said ACT has moved on from that concern, noting the recreation park is closer to the center of town than Creek Road.
Tyler LaPlant, 18, was a frequent user of the Middlebury teen center throughout his high school career. He graduated last June and still pops in occasionally to chat with former school buddies. He conceded that it would be a little strange to see the center operating at the recreation park. He is also a little concerned about the size limitations of the warming hut and the prospect of teens no longer being able to easily access the gym.
“Losing the convenience of the municipal gym is one of the negatives,” LaPlant said. “Losing the gym, during the winter months in particular, is going to be different.”
But he believes the new spot will provide some new opportunities during the warmer months. The 94 Main St. property does not really provide enough space to sling a football or engage in other organized outdoor sports, he said.
“Having that large a field near the warming hut will definitely help,” he said.
Tyler’s younger sister, Autumn, is currently an MUHS junior and frequent user of the teen center.
She, too, likes the option of being able to go upstairs to the gym for indoor basketball, dodge ball and other sports. Autumn LaPlant is also concerned that the new recreation park spot might not be as much of a magnet for teens because of its location outside of the downtown.
But, like her brother, she believes the warming hut could have some staying power. She likes the idea of having outdoor playing fields. And she believes the space, while smaller, should be adequate to serve teens’ needs.
“Without as much space, it could connect us more,” LaPlant said.
Barstow believes space concerns could be addressed in the future. With permission from town and ID-4 school officials, he believes the warming hut could be equipped with a small addition onto its eastern side. He hopes teens could participate in construction of such a project, if it is deemed warranted and is authorized.
Barstow and ACT Co-director Colby Benjamin noted the warming hut might soon get a small upgrade, in the form of a propane cooking stove that organizers of the Festival on-the-Green are planning to install in the building. The festival will relocate to the recreation park property for at least next summer while work is done on the two downtown Middlebury railroad bridges. Having a stove and the current refrigerator would give the hut a kitchenette.
Like Barstow, Benjamin likes the fact that town officials, in writing a possible epitaph for the current municipal building and gym, did not simply tell ACT “your time is up” for the teen center.
The warming hut is a “great location” for the teen center, according to Benjamin, who said visitors would still be close to downtown amenities.
The teen center board and its teens have not voted on the warming hut option, Benjamin said, but he added it is clear the ACT community is on board with making the potential new home as good as it can be.
“It has a bit of a funky feel to it,” Benjamin said of the warming hut space. “It really does feel like it cold be a teen center.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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