Editorial: Middlebury visitors’ center in town offices still a good idea

One of the good ideas that had been included in the preliminary architectural proposals for a newly constructed municipal building back in 2011 was incorporating a visitor’s center. The center would have served as the place in town for traveling guests to drop in, look through brochures and, hopefully, talk to someone about the highlights of things to do and see in the area. It is standard fare in most tourist destination areas throughout the U.S., Europe, and much of the world.
That original vision, however, was considered too pricey (the cost estimate was $8.9 million for the combined project, all paid by Middlebury taxpayers), and the pared down version of the municipal building at the new site has left the notion of a visitor’s center out of the current plans.
That’s a loss. The new site for the municipal building makes it an ideal location to serve as a visitor center, even if that presentation takes up a relatively small amount of space. Even a glorified table in the lobby might meet the need in the height of summer and fall foliage. As for space required, it would not take a lot to make a big difference.
As it is, the visitor’s center, for the town and county is located in the Addison County Chamber of Commerce building on Court Street. In case you don’t know where that is, its official address is 93 Court Street. It’s the relatively non-descript building that looks like a house with a small sign out front indicating there is, indeed, a place to find information if you take a sharp turn off the main thoroughfare, up the short drive and park around back. The location is about 6 to 7 long blocks from downtown, and most travelers, just to be honest, would not be looking for a visitor’s center among that row of former residential houses.
It used to be that the Chamber was located in the majestic Painter House just across from the Middlebury Inn in the heart of the downtown. The stately building looks down on the town green, Merchants Row and Main Street — the heart of the business district. There was ample parking and the building itself was prominent. Signage was easy to see. Visitor traffic was often brisk during peak seasons.
Because of the Chamber’s necessary change of locations, and the lack of a better place for the visitor’s center, the municipal building option remains the town’s best bet, if we aim to meet that need. Admittedly, we’re in the fourth quarter of the ordeal to get the municipal building design approved, but it’s not too late to consider modest options.
Currently, the project is under review by the Middlebury Development Review Board. The first meeting will be held Monday, Sept. 22. While the price and physical scope of the project will not likely change to any degree (a $6.5 million bond has been passed by town voters and that essentially caps the financial scope of the project), interior designs and uses are still up for fine-tuning to any degree that is feasible within the existing parameters.
One other concern is the availability of restrooms for public use.
One of the benefits of moving the municipal offices to this very central location — and on that side of the rotary — is access to public restrooms that are clearly marked and to which retailers and business owners in the downtown could easily direct visitors who were seeking such facilities. But if those facilities are only open on regular business hours of the municipal building, roughly Monday-Friday, 8 to 5, and on special events, then there will be significant number of times that those facilities won’t be open when the town is packed with guests. Middlebury College athletic events on Saturday and Sunday, for instance, as well as parents’ weekends, alumni events and most summer weekends draw an abundance of visitors downtown.
If there were a way to create public restroom facilities for use seven days a week, perhaps with local police closing facilities at a set time of 7 p.m. or so, the public would be better served and one of the critical needs of the downtown would be met.
These and other questions (we had argued for a full basement instead of the current partial basement, but the expense proved to be too great) will hopefully be discussed during the upcoming meetings with the DRB.
The good news is that the building will be a “net-zero” project, thanks to an extra $287,550 chipped in by Middlebury College to make it super energy-efficient, and an added connector between the Ilsley Library and municipal building is also up for discussion. (See story on Page 1A.) All-in-all, the new 9,500-square-foot building is shaping up well, but we’re hopeful there is also a willingness to hear the concerns and ideas that arise in the DRB meetings and the board and architects can incorporate as many as make sense into the design before construction starts next spring.
Angelo S. Lynn

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