Opinion: Voters shouldn’t buckle to high-pressure sales pitch

We have all recently been hit with an all-out attack by the combined forces of Middlebury College President Ron Liebowitz, Angelo Lynn, and the majority of the town selectboard. They are pressuring voters to support an expensive bond proposal, hatched in secret, that would sell off the prominent site of our municipal facilities, demolish these historic structures, and create two inadequate buildings in bad locations.
They want us to accept a proposal with no final design for the buildings and no details of lease and use agreements between the town and the UD-3 board about a Creek Road gym. The proposal violates the Middlebury Town Plan and may well violate Act 60. They falsely portray the need to remake the downtown as an emergency measure, scaring voters with a warning that the college, which has repeatedly tried to buy the 94 Main St. site, may never again be willing to make a deal with the town.
As part of this high-pressure sales campaign, the proponents had the town mail out an expensive multicolor glossy “information” brochure supporting the multimillion-dollar bond. This slick propaganda piece contains many misleading claims, glaring omissions, and biased language. Consider, for example, these phrases: “healthy, super energy efficient,” “meet current and projected needs,” “architecturally significant” and “highly efficient mechanical systems” in describing the proposed new facilities and “layout is confusing,” “in significant disrepair” and “at the end of their useful life” in talking about the existing buildings. Many of these claims are highly subjective. Conveniently omitted is any mention that the town would be handing over public land to a private party. The claim is that the project will cost the town $2 million but this omits the significant interest charges, Middlebury’s share (as part of the UD-3 district) of a possible $400,000 bond for locker rooms, and other likely expenditures such as solving an exacerbated parking problem behind the Ilsley Library and adding a traffic signal at Creek Road and Route 7.
Independent publisher Angelo Lynn has written many editorials (two in the most recent issues) supporting the bond proposal/sale/land swap. Middlebury College President Ron Liebowitz has also leveled personal attacks against citizens working to retain the Main Street site as public land and the continuing home for municipal facilities.
Branding those who believe it is not in the town’s best interest to sell the land as “naysayers,” President Liebowitz accuses opponents of trying “to undermine the collaboration between the town and the college through a campaign of distortion, misinformation and innuendo.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. We have never used the term “land grab” to describe the college’s attempt to purchase the site; it is Dr. Liebowitz who has now employed it twice in letters to the editor. The college’s motivations have never been the focus of our disagreement with the proposed plan. Indeed, the interests of the college and the town frequently coincide (as in the construction of the bridge) but not in the case of this proposed sale — and a sale it certainly would be.
The $4.5 million the town would receive from the college (plus up to another $1 million to relocate the Osborne House, raze the existing municipal building and gym to create a park), if voters approved the deal is not a “gift.” Webster’s dictionary defines “gift” as “something voluntarily transferred by one person to another without compensation.” The college would be compensated for its expenditure with a large and important parcel in the center of Middlebury. Calling such a transfer anything other than a real estate transaction is a serious misrepresentation.
President Liebowitz says the land has “virtually no monetary value to the college.” Vermont Public Radio quotes him as saying, “We own enough property.” If Middlebury College truly wanted to present a gift, ensure a healthy and vibrant downtown, and end the current controversy, then it should simply give the town $4.5 million with no strings attached.
More than 400 voters successfully petitioned Article 9 on the ballot asking the selectboard to preserve the current site as public land and to develop a plan to renovate or replace the buildings there. Keeping the gym and town offices on the current site will promote downtown growth and vitality. We can achieve this goal at an affordable cost to the taxpayers.
Middlebury voters have twice rejected proposals to sell this town land to the college. We hope they will do the same again by voting NO on Article 6 to defeat the bond proposal along with at least two members of the selectboard and the majority of the current candidates. Please vote YES on Article 9 to advise the selectboard to develop an alternative that preserves our public land as a home for town offices and gym.
Michael Olinick

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