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Hundreds come out to hear about Ilsley expansion

Ilsley Library in Middlebury is slated for a makeover; more than 200 people came out to explore design options on Wednesday evening. Independent photo/John S. McCright

MIDDLEBURY — More than 200 people packed into Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater on Wednesday, Aug. 9, to listen to three design teams share their ideas on how the Ilsley Public Library could be renovated and expanded at its 75 Main St. site. Ilsley officials will now huddle to pour over all the available documents and public input before recommending the hiring of one of the three teams to bring the library renovation/expansion design to its conclusion.

Ilsley officials are poised to make that recommendation to the Middlebury selectboard at its Aug. 22 meeting.

Joe McVeigh, leader of the Ilsley 100 Project Team, said 227 people attended the Aug. 9 meeting, featuring presentations by these three Vermont-based teams: gbA Architects and Planning, Vermont Integrated Architecture, and a collaboration of Wiemann-Lamphere Architects and ReArch Company.

The Independent shared details and images of all the design concepts in its July 27 and Aug. 3 editions. But Ilsley leaders have cautioned that the final library project design could look nothing like any of the images that people saw at the Aug. 9 showcase.

All three competing architectural teams have recommended preserving the original, 1924 Ilsley building while removing the subsequent ’77 and ’88 additions to make way for new construction.

But the teams’ plans vary in terms of building footprint, architectural flourishes and verticality of a newly imagined Ilsley. The submitted conceptual images range from two to four stories, and there’s roughly a 5,000-square-foot difference between the smallest and largest design offering.

Team representatives offered commentary as their designs splashed across a big screen in the THT on Aug. 9. You can see a full video of the 1 hour, 47-minute presentation at middleburycommunitytv.org.

All three groups received a $5,000 stipend for their work in devising conceptual images of how the Ilsley Library’s growing programming could be accommodated within roughly 24,000 square feet, at a cost of around $15 million. These and other big-picture parameters — such as the decision to keep the library at its present location — were previously endorsed by both the Ilsley board and the town selectboard.

Ilsley leaders have for at least the past five years been seeking solutions to current deficiencies within the library building. The current library building affords inadequate and poorly configured space that isn’t meeting the community’s service expectations, Ilsley leaders say. It has low ceilings and support columns; has a poorly lit and under-sized children’s area that suffers from ground water leaks, mold and a broken wastewater system that causes offensive odors; needs better amenities for teens and ‘tweens; and has areas and resources that aren’t accessible to some folks who are physically challenged.

Folks who attended the Aug. 9 presentation were vocal in their appreciation of the work the three teams submitted.

“THT was filled to capacity with an encouraging and enthusiastic crowd,” McVeigh said, adding the event “had terrific energy.”

Middlebury resident Mike Roy was one of those in attendance.

“I was thrilled with the turnout, because it suggested to me that there’s a ton of support, interest and excitement about the possibilities of doing this renovation and adding onto the building,” Roy said. “That was a real good sign.”

He was also pleased to see out-of-town users represented at the gathering and said the Ilsley has become a magnet for attracting visitors to the community who also shop, dine and do business in the shire town.

“It’s going to make the downtown even more attractive and vibrant,” Roy said of the Ilsley project.

Among the featured speakers was selectboard Chair Brian Carpenter, who told the crowd he values the library and believes it’s due for an overhaul. But he cautioned the project would not come cheaply. He said he hopes the town can find diverse revenue streams to underwrite the library makeover, noting a $15 million bond would be tough for local taxpayers to absorb.

He asked locals in the crowd if they “would be willing to accept a 15% tax increase for the next 20 years to fund this?”

He did not explain to the audience where that 15% figure came from, and some in attendance said it was misleading. It certainly dampened the mood of the proceedings.

No one kept an official tally of the straw poll, but a number of hands went up.

“As a selectboard member, we have a responsibility to try to be fiscally responsible and we will be grappling with that over the coming months along with all the bills that we’re getting from the (rains)storms,” Carpenter told the crowd. “So we ask for your support, we also ask for your understanding that the library, it’s huge for us, and we really want to and need to get this done. There’s a lot of challenges that we’re trying to balance. It’s a function of trying to balance and keep everybody whole.”

EXPLORING THE TAX IMPACT

Asked to elaborate on his assertion of a 15% tax rate for a $15 million bond, Carpenter referred to information he got from Town Manager Kathleen Ramsey. He offered the following:

“Last time Kathleen looked at costing for us in December, every $1 million of bond cost (a penny) on the taxes, so $15 million would be very close to $0.15. Interest rates have gone up since that time, our municipal tax is approximately $0.87, and the cost of completing the project is likely to be greater than $15 million, so I feel 15% was a conservative figure we’d be lucky to achieve if we have to bond for 100% of the project. Hence, we are trying to be methodical and seek all funding avenues.”

Carpenter acknowledged he was referring to a possible 15% increase in just the municipal property tax rate. Middlebury’s overall tax rate includes a residential education property tax rate of $1.676 per $100 of assessed property value and a non-residential rate of $1.6565. So, a full two-thirds of Middlebury’s total residential property tax rate is associated with public education expenses.

Ken Perine is a member of the Ilsley 100 Project Team. He said he believes “a dollar and cents estimate of a tax increase is much more understandable than a percentage increase of the town taxes, since most taxpayers look at their entire tax bill (town tax plus education tax) when thinking of tax burden,” he said. “And of course, that dollars and cents estimate will vary depending on the assessed value of the real estate being taxed.”

McVeigh and his colleagues are confident of finding other resources to draw down the property tax impact for Middlebury residents.

Asked if he thought neighboring communities could be asked to help defray the cost of the Ilsley project given that some of their citizens benefit from Middlebury’s library, Carpenter replied, “That’s not something I see as feasible. I believe local option taxes and state and federal dollars are how greater communities pay for shared services.”

Middlebury already has a local option tax that’s helping to pay for its Cross Street Bridge.

So what’s next?

“The most optimistic scenario is one where we have the schematic designs completed in the fall, we have a positive read on the amount of private funds we might raise, we have positive responses from our grant applications, and the selectboard is fully behind us in terms of a bond vote,” McVeigh said. “If all of those stars align, we would hope to have a successful bond vote in March of 2024 and then break ground next summer or early fall. If we don’t see $15 million, we will consult with the selectboard and continue to brainstorm for other sources of funding, and perhaps even wrap the library project into the idea of developing the space behind the library, to see if we can find some synergies there.”

Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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