Middlebury asked to take reins of local teen center

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury officials will study the prospect of merging the local teen center with the municipal Parks & Recreation Department as a way of giving the youth friendly operation long-term financial and organizational stability.
The selectboard on Tuesday voted unanimously — with members Brian Carpenter and Nick Artim absent — to consider the merger, with the caveat that Middlebury should not be expected to take on a bigger financial stake in the Addison Central Teens (ACT) center.
The non-profit ACT and its teen center serve students in grades 7-10 from the Addison Central School District-member communities of Bridport, Cornwall, Middlebury, Ripton, Salisbury, Shoreham and Weybridge.
Dozens of students from Middlebury Union middle and high schools converge on the teen center after classes. The center was first established more than a decade ago in the basement of the former Middlebury municipal building. It is now located in the former warming hut structure in Middlebury’s recreation park, close to Mary Hogan Elementary School.
Al Zaccor, chairman of the ACT board, said the popular, safe hangout for youths has become known as “Middlebury’s” teen center.
“That’s how we think of it, and that’s how people see it,” Zaccor told the board.
He stressed ACT’s request for the teen center to fall under the town’s stewardship is not being made because the operation is in crisis. Zaccor noted the center has substantially expanded its programming in recent years to include such offerings as tennis, ice skating, cartooning, yoga and building computers. ACT has also launched a successful summer camp.
Having centralized, supervised activities — or simply a good spot to catch up on homework — keeps participants in a safe, social setting until they can return home for the evening. The center is led by a board of directors, a full-time executive director and a part-time program manager. The ACT board is currently recruiting to fill those recently vacated administrative positions (see related story by clicking here).
Addison Central Teens operated on a budget of $122,100 last year. The budget is covered through grants, donations, in-kind contributions, fundraising, help from the United Way of Addison County, a major gift from an anonymous benefactor, and annual payments from ACSD-member towns that are in proportion to the number of students they each send to the teen center.
It’s a financial formula that saw Middlebury pay around half ($61,800) of ACT’s budget last year. Its local taxpayers contributed $30,000 and the town made $31,800 in in-kind contributions related primarily to the warming hut space.
The other six ACSD communities contributed a combined total of $10,000, based on their youths’ participation at the teen center.
ACT officials said they’ve been pleased with the financial support the teen center has been receiving. But there are a few clouds looming on the budgetary horizon. The center’s anonymous benefactor has served notice that he will gradually reduce his annual gift from the $18,000 range this year to $12,000 in 2020. Zaccor said the gift reduction has been expected and is in line with the philanthropic principle of gradually weaning support from a cause so that it does not become overly reliant on a single source.
With that in mind, ACT officials believe an affiliation with Middlebury Parks & Rec would place the teen center on a more secure footing, in terms of providing some economies of scale in managing the operation.
“We would look to the town to guarantee our staff expenses, and keep the (teen center) doors open,” Zaccor said, adding ACT would still maintain an advisory board that would continue to aggressively raise funds to ensure that Middlebury taxpayers’ financial outlay for the teen center does not increase.
Merging with Middlebury Parks & Rec emerged as the ACT board’s top choice of alternatives to guarantee the teen center’s future. The panel also considered ramping up fundraising, seeking independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, and affiliation with the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Vergennes. But officials noted the difficulty of competing with other local nonprofits for limited charitable dollars, the cost of achieving 501(c)(3) status, and the potential loss of autonomy that could result from a partnership with the Boys & Girls Club.
Zaccor and his colleagues told the selectboard they don’t believe Middlebury can afford to lose the teen center. The alternative could be some area at-risk youth potentially delving into illegal activities and/or drug abuse.
“We don’t think it’s an option not to have a teen center,” Zaccor said.
John Barstow, a long-time teen center booster, said he’s had some informal discussions with Parks & Recreation Director Teri Arnold about a potential affiliation. Her feedback thus far has been positive, according to Barstow.
“That’s a key constituent in this whole thing,” he said of Parks & Rec.
Selectboard members acknowledged the importance and success of Addison Central Teens, but warned Middlebury’s generosity is not unlimited.
Selectman Victor Nuovo urged ACT leaders to ask the other Addison Central towns to maintain — and perhaps increase — their financial stake in the teen center.
“It is important that whatever we work out, to keep (the six other ACSD towns) a part of this,” Nuovo said.
“The tax burden is heavy and needs to be shared.”
Selectwoman Heather Seeley agreed.
“It doesn’t seem like we’re asking those towns to pay their fair share now,” she said.
Seeley said Middlebury already provides citizens from surrounding towns bargain amenities through its library and recreation department.
“If this is truly ‘Addison Central Teens,’ it has to be more (equitably) funded by the surrounding communities, in my opinion,” Seeley said. “I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t step up to the plate and provide — especially considering the in-kind contributions Middlebury is making. We’re doing a lot.”
She added “taxpayer dollars are finite,” and there are “a lot of pressure on those dollars as it is.”
Selectwoman Laura Asermily asked ACT officials if they had considered asking the school district to partner with the teen center. Zaccor said such a scenario is worth exploring, but he had not found any models of such a partnership.
Ultimately, ACT officials believe the teen center could become self-sustaining through fees for some of its programming. But in the meantime, the organization needs a helping hand, they said.
“We believe there are even more kids who need this,” Zaccor said.
Tuesday’s vote by the selectboard merely opens a dialogue between Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay, ACT and Parks & Rec about the potential viability of a partnership. The selectboard would have to endorse such a move.
Reporter John Flowers is at  [email protected].

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