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Middlebury seeks revival of Otter Creek Falls area

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By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — A citizens’ committee is seeking around $260,000 in grant money to introduce new walkways and a terraced viewing area to provide better access to, and enjoyment of, the Otter Creek Falls in downtown Middlebury.

The Middlebury selectboard and the committee will present the plan at a public meeting set for 6:50 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 12, in the town offices on South Main Street. It’s a plan assembled by an ad hoc “Riverfront Committee” that has spent recent months discussing ways Middlebury could more effectively use the Otter Creek Falls as a calling card to draw more visitors and commerce to the downtown.

“It would be so good for Middlebury to make that area accessible,” Riverfront Committee member Nancy Malcolm said in referring to the Otter Creek Falls. “It’s really a jewel.”

A jewel that has been likened to a “diamond in the rough” by many town officials. Many a visitor has “oohed” at the sight of the Otter Creek cascading beneath the Roman arch Battell Bridge on Main Street. Trouble is, one of the only unencumbered vantage points from which to view the falls is the footbridge that links the Marble Works to Frog Hollow. Business leaders, environmental groups and selectmen have promoted a cleanup of the debris that collects at the base of the falls, so that the area can be landscaped and made more inviting. Selectmen several years ago commissioned a study that included a suggestion to beautify and develop the rear facades of Main Street businesses that border the falls area.

While limited resources have resulted in ambitious plans remaining on the shelf, the Riverfront Committee wants to jumpstart improvements to the falls area. The latest momentum comes in the wake of Middlebury’s participation, beginning last year, in the “Creative Communities Program” sponsored by the Vermont Council on Rural Development (VCRD). The program provided Middlebury with some funds and guidance to brainstorm ideas on how it can improve the local economy in a way that uses a community’s unique assets — such as its location, geographic attributes, special products and/or homegrown talent.

Once the Creative Communities effort identified riverfront improvements as a priority, supporters set up a committee to hash over ideas and follow through on them. With the help of a local landscape architect, the committee designed a riverfront plan that calls for establishing an improved walkway from the Printer’s Alley entrance to the Marble Works. The walkway, made of exposed aggregate concrete to create safer conditions for disabled visitors, would extend into the Marble Works property. That walkway would dovetail into a series of new paths that would lead to a terraced viewing area overlooking the falls near the Marble Works-side bank of the creek.

Plans call for the project area to be landscaped with various plantings. Some retaining walls would also be required.

Committee member Gail Freidin, coordinator of the Middlebury Business Association, said the group will apply for a transportation enhancement grant through the Vermont Agency of Transportation to help pay for the project. Organizers will seek funds will also be sought through Jane’s Trust, a charitable foundation, to further underwrite the costs.

Freidin said construction on the Riverfront project may not start until 2011.

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