Town Hall Theater to buy The Diner

MIDDLEBURY — Town Hall Theater boosters have spent the past two years canvassing Middlebury for some additional storage and rehearsal space for the community’s thriving arts and entertainment center.
They’ve finally found the space they need — and it’s literally right next door to the majestic THT building on Merchants Row.
Some might call it serendipity, others might call it fate. But come June 1, the THT will officially buy The Diner property at 66 Merchants Row. The Diner will at some point be removed to make way for an addition to the THT on the 0.15-acre lot.
“We felt this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to secure adjacent land to the theater,” THT Executive Director Douglas Anderson said.
“We were poised to jump on this.”
Folks aren’t likely to notice any major changes at the site for several years while THT officials raise money for the eventual expansion the historic theater building.
In the meantime, The Diner will remain open for business through June 1 under current owners Carl Roesch and Caetlin Harwood. Beyond that, THT officials are committed to keeping The Diner building filled with some kind of enterprise — be it food service or some other use — from this summer to whenever the organization follows through with its growth spurt.
“The key point we want to make to the community is we don’t want to shutter the building,” Anderson said. “We think an empty storefront is bad for downtown. We are actively looking for anyone who has any idea of how to use the building, and we will entertain any idea.”
Some might think The Diner transaction came out of the blue.
That’s not the case.
 “It seemed sudden, but we’ve been working on this for over two years,” Anderson said. “It’s not commonly known, but we were short of space on the day we opened. There is no storage. There is precious little office space. We don’t have a scene shop. We need a second rehearsal space. We’ve known all of this for quite some time.”
There are times when as many as six people are doing THT business in the same small office. Sets for theater productions currently have to be made on the THT stage, thus taking the much-in-demand artistic real estate out of circulation. Many THT props and costumes have to be stored in off-site borrowed space.
The space shortage became so acute two years ago that THT formed a committee jokingly referred to as the “space cadets.” The group has looked as far afield as Exchange Street in securing a building to purchase or rent for THT overflow.
“We have met on a monthly basis and pursued every lead,” Anderson said. “The ‘trouble’ with Middlebury is that it’s too successful. There isn’t any leftover space. What we wouldn’t have given for an abandoned factory or an empty schoolhouse. They just don’t exist.”
Or so the space cadets thought, until they learned roughly five weeks ago The Diner property was for sale.
“We didn’t even have to discuss it,” Anderson quipped of the immediate consensus of the cadets that The Diner fit the bill.
The property extends in the back to the Clinton Smith carriage house, providing enough area to someday allow for new construction.
And the key word is “someday.”
“This is part of a long-term plan,” Anderson said. “It could be three, five or 10 years before we (a) figure out exactly what we need to move into the future, and (b) raise the money to fulfill whatever the dream is. And remarkably, we were able to raise the purchase price ($300,000) in very short order.”
How short?
Two weeks.
Fewer than 15 THT devotees pledged to cover The Diner purchase price.
“I think it says a lot about people’s desire to keep the arts in the community,” THT board President Benj Deppman said of the fundraising feat. “It also says a lot about Doug and the quality we put on the stage.”
The transaction comes at a good time for Roesch and Harwood, who took some financial hits during the early stages of the downtown Middlebury rail bridges project last year. That work will intensify next year and in 2020, when the Merchants Row and Main Street spans will be replaced with a concrete tunnel.
Roesch said he and Harwood will remain dedicated to the diner right up to the point when they turn over the keys in two months. They’ll continue to serve up mouth watering breakfasts, lunches and specials.
“We want to go out with a bang,” Roesch said.
He confirmed the family will — after a long-overdue vacation — return to the Addison County scene with a new “food-driven” venture. More details to follow.
Roesch and Harwood are pleased to see their property go to a neighbor.
“Both Caetlin and I are extremely excited about the THT purchasing the property and expanding,” Roesch said. “Doug has shared his vision with us, and we see it as something  that will be great for the community.”
Dining, Deppman believes, could fit into the THT’s long-term plans for The Diner site.
“We are mindful that diner has been a landmark for many people,” Deppman said.
Prior to it becoming “The Diner,” the business operated many years as Steve’s Park Diner. It has been a popular venue for home-style classics and bountiful breakfasts, attracting college professors and blue collar workers alike.
“The big picture (for THT) doesn’t necessarily eliminate an eatery; it’s on our wish list,” Deppman said, noting such an amenity could be useful during performance intermissions and for conference participants.
It’s all part of the big picture, future expansion of the theater in line with an organizational evolution that Anderson likes to call “THT 2.O.” As previously reported by the Independent, THT officials are in the midst of a $2.5 million campaign to endow a new artistic director position as well as future maintenance of the theater building. Anderson will transition to artistic director. Meanwhile, a search is under way for a new executive director.
The portend of future expansion should help the THT board recruit its new executive director, Anderson believes.
“It says to the new ED, ‘You’re not just coming here to maintain what we’ve been doing for the past 10 years; you are coming here to help us envision a whole new future for THT,’” Anderson said. “I think that will be very attractive to the right person.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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