Group seeks creative solutions to ease pain of rail bridges work

MIDDLEBURY — If anyone would have good reason to complain about the impacts of the upcoming replacement of the two downtown Middlebury rail bridges, it’s the Rev. Susan McGarry of the St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church.
McGarry’s church office is literally 15 feet away from the railroad tracks and perhaps another 30 from the deteriorating Merchants Row bridge that will soon be removed along with the span on Main Street.
“My desk shakes sometimes when the train goes by,” McGarry said on Monday.
But while McGarry and her parishioners remain concerned about how the bridges project could affect the historic St. Stephen’s building, they are not pushing for a halt of the project. They’re taking a page from the Bible by metaphorically turning the other cheek by offering to help local citizens and businesses weather the coming construction storm.
They’ve dubbed the effort “Neighbors Together,” which will include at least two upcoming community forums that will be moderated by a facilitator the church has hired with grant money. The first forum is slated for Sunday, Jan. 31, from 3 to 5 p.m., with the theme “What do we need to protect and preserve during construction?” The second forum will be held during the same timeframe on Sunday, Feb. 21, with the title, “Actions to ensure we survive and thrive as a community.” Both of those forums will be repeated. Details about the group’s activities can currently be found online at
Organizers are banking on the forums producing some specific actions the new group can take to lessen the headaches that will be caused by jackhammers, heavy equipment, detours, parking loss and dust.
Linda Horn, senior warden for St. Stephen’s, explained “Neighbors Together” is an outgrowth of some networking that fellow church official Ed McGuire had been doing with other downtown Middlebury property owners facing potential impacts from the project.
“He was making these connections because of the railroad, so we thought, ‘Why don’t we try that on a bigger scale?’” Horn said.
So the church reached out to a variety of groups with a stake in the railroad project. They include the Addison County Chamber of Commerce, Better Middlebury Partnership, Downtown Improvement District Commission, selectboard and Middlebury College. All have agreed to participate on the Neighbors Together steering committee.
“Churches are about people, and one of the things everyone in the community is worried about is … the impact this is going to have on people,” McGarry said.
“We want to help, but the scope (of the project) is such that our community has to come together,” Horn said. “How can we take concrete actions that help to mitigate the disruption or increase our sense of community?”
McGarry noted some of the downtown businesses currently operate on low profit margins, meaning a steady loss of clients due to construction could become a financial back-breaker. Town Hall Theater officials have already expressed fears about the THT being able to survive a lengthy construction project. And McGarry believes the downtown will suddenly become less accessible to young people, and that one of the main routes to Porter Hospital will be negatively affected.
“Business people, regular people — we are really hoping that the net goes really far in terms of people who will come together on this,” McGarry said of Neighbors Together.
McGarry and Horn are looking forward to hearing some of the good ideas they believe will come out during the upcoming forums. Horn said the list could include such proposals as creating a river watch committee to assess any environmental damage the work might cause to the nearby Otter Creek; providing ear plugs for downtown merchants and residents; offering occasional, temporary sleeping accommodations to folks needing a break from nighttime noise and lighting; organizing a bus service and a “pledge to shop” petition to ensure continued commerce in downtown; and providing a platform from which children could view the transformation of the rail bridges.
“Survive and thrive” is the group’s motto for weathering the project, according to Horn and McGarry.
“We are trying to make this as positive a response as possible to an upcoming difficult situation,” Horn said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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