By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — A group of Middlebury-area parents and youths is vowing to deliver on what a longstanding dream to establish a teen center in Addison County’s shire town.
More than 20 members of the recently-formed Addison County Teens and Friends Committee turned out at Tuesday’s selectboard meeting to describe their efforts to locate, fund and devise programming for a Middlebury-area youth center. They also served notice to selectmen that they would be back to ask for the board’s support — and perhaps some funding — to get the center up and running.
“There’s really a strong momentum to this group,” Friends committee member Dan Beaupre told selectmen. “We think there is enough energy and the time is right to bring this (idea) forward.”
Numerous individuals, groups and non-profit organizations have passed the Middlebury teen center “baton” back and forth for at least 20 years. But a lack of funding, the absence of ready-to-move-in sites and the changing faces of organizers have been among the stumbling blocks in getting a local teen center off the ground.
In the meantime, local teens and their parents have seen nearby Bristol and Vergennes create successful youth centers, skateboard facilities, movie nights and other youth offerings. Those successes have underscored the absence of a teen center in the county’s largest community.
It’s a void that Friends Committee members said they are committed to filling. A major catalyst for this latest effort, according to Beaupre, was an editorial in the June 19, 2006 issue of the Addison Independent. That editorial noted, among other things, that skateboarders who are unwanted on the Town Hall Theater steps and kids who hang out on public sidewalks and in town parks could be better accommodated by a much-needed Middlebury teen center.
“It motivated me to be a part of the group,” said Beaupre, who noted there are currently 41 teen centers in Vermont, including many in communities smaller than Middlebury.
Around 50 area residents and teens turned out at a Sept. 5 Friends Committee meeting at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church to brainstorm ideas for a new youth center. Teens at the meeting suggested the center could not only offer opportunities to “hang out,” but also serve as a venue in which people could cook, hold debates, run a second-hand store, hold music/poetry jams, watch movies, play games and do homework.
In essence, the center would help fill an activities void for teens who are not interested in school athletics and who are not served by Middlebury Recreation Department programs, according to Peter Dempewolff, one of four youths who spoke to the selectmen on Tuesday.
“Middlebury has excellent programs for younger kids,” Dempewolff said. “There’s kind of a lack of things for teens who aren’t interested in athletics.”
As a result, teens have few alternatives other than to hang out, according to Isabel Lower.
“You sit around and talk, watch people, eat candy,” Lower said, adding, “teens that … sit around are seen as an unwanted presence.”
Anna Tracht noted that teens are in a particularly tough predicament during the winter, when it’s too cold to congregate outdoors. She said coffee shop owners can rightfully expect teens to spend some money, which unfortunately is often in short supply.
Local parents told selectmen that a teen center would offer them some peace of mind during the summer and various after-school hours when adults are not home.
“My personal philosophy is, as a community, it is our duty to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves…” said parent Johanna Varzy.
Beaupre said the Friends group has divided itself into four subcommittees to study how a center could be funded, where it could be located, what kind of staffing it would need, and what kinds of programs such a facility could offer. A steering committee will meet weekly to keep the momentum going, he said.
Committee members said they will eventually pay another visit to selectmen to lay out a teen center plan and a funding request. Beaupre stressed that neighboring communities would also be asked for support, given the fact that both Middlebury Union High School and Middlebury Union Middle School serve students from seven towns.
Selectmen said they support the Friends Committee’s efforts.
“I think your real challenge is to look at a way to develop a program that can be sustained,” selectboard Chairman John Tenny said, noting how the teen center inertia has ebbed and flowed over the years. “Certainly, we would like to see this kind of thing flourish.”
In other action on Tuesday, Middlebury selectmen:
• Apologized to local real estate appraiser Bill Hinman for the board’s recent decision to award an out-of-town appraiser a $7,500 contract to assess the value of three properties that would need to be taken — in whole or in part — in order to build a new in-town bridge at Cross Street. Town officials had picked Mike O’Brien, and out-of-town appraiser who had done some valuations of property in the same area several years ago. Hinman voiced concerns that in picking O’Brien, the town had bypassed local appraisers who pay taxes to the town. He also argued that the $7,500 contract should have been put out to bid.
“We inadvertently overstepped a local resource,” Tenny said. “We stand corrected. It is our job to do a better job.”
• Endorsed a proposal that the 2007 Legislature be asked to annually appropriate enough money to “eradicate the threat of mosquito-borne illness,” and to distribute that money on an “as-needed basis to municipalities or districts on request.”
Middlebury now joins other towns who believe that current state funding (derived from a percentage of motorboat registration fees) is proving inadequate in the war against mosquitoes, which are driving away tourists and are carrying such diseases as the West Nile Virus.
• Agreed to tap around $150,000 in surplus water department funds to help cover a shortfall in the federally mandated “chlorine contact improvement project” at Palmer Springs. Middlebury voters last January agreed to float a $775,000 bond to cover the costs of the project, which involves chlorination system improvements for around 70 connections that are fed by the Palmer Springs pump house off Route 116.
Selectmen learned on Tuesday, however, that the lowest of five bids received for the work still exceeds the bonded amount by around $150,000. Selectmen decided the price of the project would only go up if they were to call for new bids, so they decided to bridge the $150,000 gap with water department funds. The department currently has a fund balance of $537,562.