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Middlebury to end its big dig with a big party

DOWNTOWN MIDDLEBURY WILL host a big celebration on Saturday, Aug. 21, to mark the end of a massive, four-year rail tunnel project. The event will include dedication of Lazarus Park, featuring trees, grass and a fascinating labyrinth. Independent photo/John S. McCright

“It’s been a rough 18 months and we could all use a laugh. The entertainment lineup is designed to spark joy and build community.”
— Lisa Mitchell

MIDDLEBURY — Last September, hundreds of mask-wearing people witnessed the grand opening of Middlebury’s new downtown railroad tunnel, a watershed moment during the four-year, $72 million project.

On Saturday, Aug. 21, folks are again invited to flock to Middlebury village — this time to mark the long-awaited completion of a project that has tried the collective patience of people who live, work, shop and travel through downtown.

While final project touch-ups will extend until the Tuesday after Labor Day, the heavy lifting will be over, and will have produced — among many other things — a 360-foot concrete tunnel for rail traffic, newly paved roads and sidewalks, an expanded Triangle Park, and a new Lazarus Park off Printer’s Alley.

Officials at Town Hall Theater (THT), the Better Middlebury Partnership and the citizens’ group Neighbors Together have organized a series of fun activities (from 1-5 p.m.) to help people close the book on a massive undertaking that brought substantial construction disruption to the downtown, including detours, dust, noise and interrupted freight traffic.

Dominated by world-class circus arts performers, live music, sidewalk sales, Middlebury Money giveaways and free offerings and activities, the celebration — called “Foolaroo” — will afford the greater community a collective exhale after a tumultuous period, but also a “gee whiz” moment to take in a reshaped downtown landscape.

The name “Foolaroo” is a humorous play on “Foodaroo,” an annual event in Middlebury that focuses on things culinary.

“The word ‘fool’ also harkens back to entertaining court entertainers from the medieval and renaissance eras, and we felt it appropriate, given the content,” THT Executive Director Lisa Mitchell said.

Mirth is also in high demand these days.

“It’s been a rough 18 months and we could all use a laugh,” she noted. “The entertainment lineup is designed to spark joy and build community.”

Foolaroo will include various promotions to shine a light on businesses that have taken a one-two punch from the tunnel project and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Restaurants and businesses need support more than ever right now,” Mitchell said. “We thought, ‘Why not leverage this idea to economic advantage by offering a triangle of activity to create foot traffic through the heart of Middlebury?’”

In line with that thinking, special events will take place at three outdoor Middlebury locations, beginning at the town green, moving to College Park (at the intersection of College and South Main streets), and culminating at the Marble Works complex.

Workers will spend the coming 10 days readying the downtown for its grand unveiling, highlighted by a dedication of the new Lazarus Park, named for a prominent local family that owned and operated Lazarus Department Store that stood at the site of the new park. For many years, Stan Lazarus gave clothing, shoes and money to local families of limited means. Following his death in 1998, the Lazarus family donated its former homestead at 56 North Pleasant St. to the local Jewish community to use as a gathering place. It is now known as Havurah House.

Stan Lazarus’ brother Gene served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps in Italy during World War II, then returned to Middlebury, where he owned the United 5-Cent to $1 Store and helped operate the department store. While Stan served on the Middlebury Planning Commission, Gene was a longtime member of the town’s Board of Civil Authority and served as a Justice of the Peace.

Residents Mike and Judy Olinick led a petition effort for Lazarus Park. Both are glad to see the idea become a reality.

“We are delighted that Middlebury will honor the memory of the Lazarus family with a park for everyone to enjoy,” they said, in a joint statement. “In soliciting support for the park’s name, we were deeply touched by the warmth, gratitude, affection and humor with which the two Lazarus stores and their proprietors were remembered. It is wonderful to see an important chapter of town history recalled by so many with such happy shared memories.”

The new park will include an ADA-accessible pathway to Middlebury’s Riverfront Park and Marble Works business district, and will be dominated by a labyrinth funded by St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church to offer a contemplative space in the center of town.

THE TO-DO LIST

But there’s still work to do before Aug. 21, and here are some of the highlights, according to Jim Gish, community liaison for the Middlebury tunnel project:

•  Repaving of Merchants Row and Main Street (between Merchants Row and Seymour Street). This will begin with the milling of these two downtown roadways. Gish said the precise date of the milling still needs to be sorted out. Milling is the removal of the top layer of asphalt from a street prior to repaving. Tentative plans called for Merchants Row paving to begin at around 6 p.m. on Aug. 17, with the road closed. Main Street, between Merchants Row and Seymour Street, is to paved at night on Monday, Aug. 16.

Once paved, downtown roadways will be striped for parking.

•  Removal of the temporary access road along Otter Creek (behind the Battell Block) and restoring the berm that will protect the rail line from floods.

•  Milling and repaving all of the roadways in the Marble Works, leading to paving— tentatively on Wednesday, Aug. 18, at night.

•  The one-block stretch of Water Street between Mary Johnson Children’s Center and Otter Creek to be paved the week of Aug. 16 — as will the National Bank’s Seymour Street drive and parking lot, which Kubricky Construction is currently repairing.

•  Re-installation of the Triangle Park fountain, with a test run before it’s put back into service during the Aug. 21 celebration. Triangle Park, fronting St. Stephen’s and Merchants Row, has reclaimed a large section of Middlebury’s town green that was lost to the rail corridor during the 1840s. The expanded park now sports a mix of hardscape and green space to host future public events and casual relaxation.

Gish said he’s working with state officials to finalize a series of interpretive signs that will explain the history of Triangle Park and the general area.

•  Reopening of Printer’s Alley to one-way traffic, from Main Street to the Marble Works, beginning around Aug. 21.

“People will be delighted that after more than four years of living without a Main Street entrance into the Marble Works, it’ll be back,” Gish said.

Gish said Vermont Agency of Transportation Secretary Joe Flynn, among others, has been invited to participate in the celebration. Middlebury selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter will deliver remarks during the Lazarus Park dedication, expected in early afternoon.

Then the Foolaroo events will unfold, focusing on live performances, including:

•  1 p.m., Town Green, “The Real McCoy Show,” described as “an international stunt comedy with a hard hat.”

•  2 p.m., at College Park, “Cate Great, gravity-defying, high-end circus comedy.”

•  3 p.m., Marble Works, “Snap Boogie,” who came to prominence on the TV show “America’s Got Talent” and is an NBA half-time performer who combines high-energy dance and crazy stunts.

•  3:45 p.m., Marble Works, “Wire Performance with Rachel Schiffer — a stunning wire walker, gymnast, aerialist, and acrobatic flyer, and a Middlebury native.

•  4 p.m., Marble Works, “Atom & The Orbits,” a seven-piece dance band playing modern rock ’n’ roll.

In lieu of food trucks, attendees are encouraged to support local restaurants as they rebound from COVID and construction.

Enjoy dinner at a local restaurant and then see the rollicking, side-splitting comedy “Servant of Two Masters,” live at Town Hall Theater, at 7 p.m. Tickets at townhalltheater.org,org call 382-9222.

Participants will be able to enjoy a variety of giveaways and other events during Foolaroo, Mitchell noted, including a spin on a “Wheel of Fortune” to win Middlebury Money, enjoy sidewalk sales and store promotions. Enjoy giant lawn games, huge bubbles, a tie-dye station, dunk tank, free ice cream, popsicles, hot dogs, lemonade, watermelon, popcorn and more.

Organizers are hoping for great weather and stellar participation for Foolaroo. After all, Gish noted, the community was integral to the success of the tunnel project.

“This wasn’t just the state and the town,” he said. “This was project that many people, working together, to get it done.”

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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