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Group seeks artistic flourishes for Exchange Street

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard on Tuesday agreed to support a local group’s quest for a $300,000 grant to fund public art and “creative community-building activities” along Exchange Street, work that could be done in concert with an already confirmed plan to extend sidewalk along that busy road that leads into the town’s industrial park.
But selectboard members cautioned project planners to reach out more extensively to industrial park business leaders, who they believe might have some concerns about the impact the associated pocket parks, colorful displays and gatherings of people could have on truck traffic into what is the community’s designated spot for industry.
At issue is a grant application to the National Creative Placemaking Fund (NCPF). The application is being made by Middlebury-based Community Workshop LLC — headed by resident David Hohenschau — and Middlebury Underground (MuD), a local non-profit dedicated to curating local events and arts offerings.
“We believe that a creative community-building process and the addition of public art along the street (either along the new sidewalk or in front of Exchange Street businesses) would make Exchange Street a true destination and safer, more enjoyable place for visitors and local workers,” Hohenschau wrote in a recent letter soliciting support for the grant application. “We are proposing to potentially add pocket parks, landscaping, and public art to the streetscape or adjacent properties, turning the corridor into a multi-use community greenway and outdoor arts venue. There are no fixed ideas yet — we are proposing to facilitate a collaborative process in which the stakeholders participate in selecting and locating the public art.”
Hohenschau and some MuD members turned out at Tuesday’s selectboard meeting to answer any questions about the plan, which at this point is conceptual in nature. Organizers were seeking the selectboard’s support of the grant application. They were pleased to report that Middlebury’s grant bid is one of 80 finalists out of a whopping 1,400 proposals evaluated by NCPF.
Ideally, organizers would like to see the arts initiative dovetail with the upcoming, multi-phased extension of sidewalk along Exchange Street. Phase I calls for sidewalk to be laid from the intersection of Elm Street to McIntyre Services. Phase II will extend from McIntyre Services to Catamount Park. The ultimate goal, according to Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay, is to extend the sidewalk along the entire length of Exchange Street to its intersection with Route 7.
Middlebury has landed around $700,000 in state and federal funding for the first two phases of the sidewalk project, Ramsay said. Work is expected to be completed on that section by the end of 2018, she added.
While most board members agreed to endorse the $300,000 grant, the called for a wider discussion with all possible stakeholders to determine the level of support for an arts project in the industrial park.
“It sounds great; I just have some concerns about how that area is zoned and what’s being proposed for it,” said Selectwoman Heather Seeley, whose family business includes operation of heavy vehicles.
She said commercial drivers already must contend with many rules to ensure safe driving.
“Now we are making that job even more challenging by having to negotiate artists and visitors in an area designed to be for industrial,” she said. “I would like more of an opportunity to have a better discussion.”
Selectman Victor Nuovo shared some of those concerns.
“I would be concerned when we talk about creating gathering places,” Nuovo said of the potential hazard of heavy truck traffic.
Like Seeley, he said he liked the concept of the idea, but needed more assurances that the artistic and industrial uses could be harmonious with one another.
Selectman Brian Carpenter and Selectwoman Donna Donahue said the project cold benefit the town greatly.
“It enhances everyone’s quality of life, if you do it safely,” Donahue said. “It would be an asset if it’s done well.”
Selectwoman Susan Shashok called the proposal “a great concept,” but one in need of more conversation before officially going to the drawing board.
“We are missing that element of conversation on the industrial side,” she said.
Hohenschau said he will reach out to industrial park officials for more feedback.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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