Editorial: Finding virtue in adversity

Bill Finger tells a cautionary tale of the railway construction that will tear up Middlebury’s downtown, starting in the spring of 2016.  It is a tale of adversity that must be overcome. The challenge, he posits in a story on Page 1, is how well we manage that adversity.
The bad news is the $50 million project may take three full years to complete, including a full year of up to 20 hours of daily disruption to our downtown. The project replaces the railway overpasses on Main Street and Merchant Row, channels the railway bed deeper to accommodate double-decker railway cars, and implements necessary water drainage and rail track upgrades from the area just north of the Marble Works to the Cross Street Bridge area.
The construction will be done in three phrases. The first phase will be the downtown, which Finger says he hopes to complete in a single construction season. Obviously, the construction will be managed to keep the downtown traffic open as much as possible, but without a doubt, the economic hardship to downtown businesses is of great concern.
The good news, the conversation about how to deal with this has already started. A meeting this past week gathered town leaders and downtown businesses to go over details of the project and solicit suggestions. The biggest problems are obvious:
• 50 parking spaces will be lost to the downtown during construction;
• Construction debris and roads closed to traffic will limit the number of customers willing to brave the hassle of getting to their favorite stores;
• Round-the-clock noise might limit theater productions and events (more than 180 per year) at the Town Hall Theater, which is a major draw to the downtown.
What can be done?
The first step that came out of last week’s meeting was to form a committee to tackle these problems. It’s an important start. And seeking community ideas is a logical follow-up. (Send your suggestions to [email protected].)
The next step is to get creative. We know the coming construction means far more than a routine disruption of downtown activity. As such, we need to respond on a like scale of magnitude; that is, we need to think big, bold and even brash.
For example:
• If the construction cycle is set for 20 hours and we know night lights will be used, could we plan a 4-hour break in the construction day, say, between 2:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., during which time we turn the downtown into a pedestrian mall with transit buses moving passengers frequently?
• Might the business community coordinate frequent discounts and early dining specials during that period to maximize customer participation?
• Could we create a street carnival atmosphere (during that summer/fall) to add an element of fun during that time, drawing college students and tourists into the mix?
On a bigger scale, the town should actively work with Vermont Railway—the primary benefactor of the project—to study the costs and benefits of rerouting the daily rail traffic so it does not interrupt the workflow. What doesn’t make sense is to tear up track and lay it down each day to keep limited rail service open.
At the very least, a study should be done to determine how much disruption could be avoided and money might be saved if rail traffic were diverted for the duration of the downtown construction phase. It seems reasonable, for example, that rail traffic could flow from the north to Middlebury (just north of the Elm Street area) and back north again; and from the south up as far as the Leicester rail station, just as the railway must surely do when railway bridges are replaced.
Philosophers have been keen to note the sweet trials of adversity; that is, the benefits that come from dealing with the pain of the moment. As Francis Bacon wrote: “The good things which belong to prosperity are to be wished, but the good things that belong to adversity are to be admired.” It is difficult right now to imagine how the town can prosper from this experience and how residents might admire how downtown businesses responded to the threat; yet, that is the challenge the downtown must embrace.
Angelo S. Lynn

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