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Event marks end (nearly) of big dig

GOVERNOR PHIL SCOTT in the labyrinth in Middlebury's new Lazarus Park. Independent photo/Steve James

MIDDLEBURY — It is, comparatively speaking, a virtual postage stamp within the context of the town of Middlebury’s overall 39.2 square miles.

Though tiny in size, Lazarus Park on Saturday, Aug. 21, drew a legion of dignitaries — including Gov. Phil Scott and State Transportation Secretary Joe Flynn — to celebrate the newly created public space as an emblem of a legendary family’s generosity. It was also the symbolic end to a four-year rail tunnel construction project that tested the collective mettle and patience of those living, working and traveling through downtown Middlebury.

Around 60 people attended the dedication ceremony in oppressively hot, humid conditions, and several hundred more took part in a cavalcade of performances and activities through the rest of the afternoon.

Many of the attendees at the park dedication — including Middlebury College President Laurie Patton, state lawmakers, town officials and local business leaders — jockeyed for a slice of coveted shade afforded by the adjacent National Bank of Middlebury at 30 Main St., which once housed Lazarus Department Store run by the family to which the park was dedicated.

Sadly, none of the honorees — including Stan, Mike, Jean, Annette, Harry and Stella Lazarus — were alive to witness the tributes that poured in during the roughly hour-long ceremony. The park, an acclaimed byproduct of the $72 million downtown Middlebury rail tunnel project, paid tribute to the Lazarus clan for its entrepreneurial spirit, civic engagement and generosity spanning most of the 20th century.

David Coen, who once owned the former Fishman’s Department Store in Vergennes and was first cousin to Stan and Michael Lazarus, said his relatives would have been proud of Saturday’s tribute.

He noted that in addition to their considerable community service — which for Stan included a four-year stint representing Middlebury in the state Legislature (1960-1964) — the Lazarus family consistently sponsored student scholarships and donated their homestead at 56 North Pleasant St. to Havurah, the home of the Jewish Community of Addison County.

Sadly, no one is left to carry on the family’s name.

“That is probably the most important reason why the dedication of this park today, in memory of the Lazarus family, is so timely,” Coen said. “Because it honors the history of this very vibrant and giving Middlebury family, where there is no one left to tell the story. This captures the certainly well-deserved immortality.”

Gov. Scott called the park “a beautiful addition to this downtown, and there’s no better time to have this ceremony as we close in on the end of one of the largest construction projects in Vermont.”

He told those assembled they should be proud of their resilience during construction and should savor the reward: a substantial makeover of their downtown. In addition to creating a 360-foot-long concrete tunnel that could accommodate Amtrak passenger trains as soon as next spring, the project has resulted in an enlarged Triangle Park; new Lazarus Park; new sidewalks, light fixtures, undergrounded utilities; and newly paved roads (Printer’s Alley was paved Tuesday night).

A TIMELY METAPHOR

Scott’s trip to the podium was briefly delayed by a faulty sound system. The glitch provided fodder for his speech.

“The problem with the sound system is almost a metaphor for what you’ve all experienced over the past couple of years with this project and what we deal with as Vermonters with the pandemic and everything else,” he said. “It’s not the unexpected that’s the problem; it’s how you deal with it.

“What you’ve ended up with is absolutely stunning, and it’s only going to get more beautiful as time goes on,” he added.

Middlebury selectboard member Brian Carpenter said the completed tunnel project will provide a solid foundation for the revitalization of a downtown that has already begun its comeback with the opening of several new stores spurred by a “Kick Start Middlebury” incentive program.

“The Agency of Transportation has given us a new canvas to work with in our central downtown,” Carpenter said. “What awaits as we emerge from construction and from COVID-19?”

He thanked general contractor Kubricky Construction, VHB Engineering and VTrans, among others, for their work in getting the project done largely on time. The work was supposed to have concluded on Aug. 16, but that timeline was moved out to early September to cover a few final tasks.

Following the Lazarus Park dedication, many of the dignitaries crossed Main Street to Triangle Park, where Gov. Scott turned the spigot that restarted the large fountain that was reinstalled just the night before. Then the fun began with a series of street performers in Triangle Park, College Park and the Marble Works. The event, organized by Town Hall Theater, was dubbed Foolaroo. In addition to the performers (capped off with a tightrope performance by Middlebury native Rachel Schiffer and Addison County native Anais Mitchell, who sang with Atom & the Orbits) there were free refreshments, a busy dunk tank, a bubble station for kids, tye dying, Middlebury Money giveaways, a miniature train running around the green and COVID-19 vaccination shots.

GENEROUS FAMILY

The new park is located on the spot where the Lazarus Department Store thrived for decades prior to its move to the current National Bank building. Helen Haerle worked for Stan Lazarus and was the last owner of the store before selling the building to the bank in 1996. She shared memories of her late boss, whom she called a great mentor and a benefactor to many who couldn’t always afford the clothing he was selling. He gave away many pairs of shoes and other items during his life.

“He was a kind and caring man, always willing to help others,” Haerle said.

National Bank President Caroline Carpenter was ecstatic about the way the tunnel project has turned out, and enthusiastic about what she believes the new downtown amenities will do for commerce in the county’s shire town.

“I spent this summer walking through this park as it’s been developed, and on the sidewalk by the Post Office, and I honestly have to pinch myself,” she said. “It feels like a mirage, like something I dreamed of years ago and couldn’t imagine that reality.”

Carpenter had a good Main Street vantage point to view the tunnel project.

She gave a shout-out to the Lazarus family for its contributions to the community.

“Much is owed to Stan, Jean and Annette Lazarus and their parents, Harry and Stella,” Carpenter said. “They were extraordinary contributors to the Middlebury community. It is truly fitting that this beautiful Lazarus Park and the bank will continue, side by side, to serve this town we love.”

Also offering comments was the Rev. Paul Olsson of St. Stephen’s Church, directly across the road from Lazarus Park. The St. Stephen’s congregation raised money for the labyrinth that serves as a centerpiece for the new public space.

“Lazarus Park is a sign, in so many ways, of new life — a rebirth, if you will, for our historic downtown,” Olsson told the crowd. “It is our hope that this gift to the entire Middlebury community, nestled as it is in Lazarus Park, will provide an ongoing place for quiet reflection and the building up of heart, body, soul and mind, for everyone who encounters it.”

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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