Middlebury resident Nancy Malcolm was honored Tuesday night as the Outstanding Citizen by the Better Middlebury Partnership. It’s no surprise. She’s involved with her community like few others are. She’s also smart, tenacious, focused and doesn’t take “No” for an answer. And, importantly, she works on projects and ideas the community needs.
In singing her praises at BMP’s annual meeting where she received the award (see story Page 3A), it was her work on bringing the Riverside Park to near completion that put her nomination over the top. That project, six years in the making, has literally transformed an eyesore into what is one of the most scenic vistas in town. Like an artist, she literally has taken clay and rock and created beauty.
In accepting the award the point she made about the project was that it came out of the Creative Economy, a state initiative back in 2007 that involved close to 100 community members who brainstormed ways to make the community better. Creating a riverside park on the Otter Creek just below Middlebury Falls was one way to turn an under-utilized natural asset into a crown jewel. It also wasn’t the first time this part of town had been recognized as a diamond in the rough.
In the late 1980s, historic architect and developer Townsend Anderson was a partner in what would become the Marble Works Business District (it had been home to a farm implement dealership and known as the Cartmell Complex) and was instrumental in getting the footbridge built across the Otter Creek at a cost of about $400,000. At the time, it was a monumental gift to the town and dramatically changed the traffic flow for pedestrians in downtown Middlebury as well as expanding the downtown footprint.
Much has happened in the interim and, today, Middlebury is on the verge of another set of historic changes — with the $7.5 million project to raze and rebuild the town’s municipal building, and more, that will dramatically improve Middlebury’s landscape.
How this relates to Malcolm’s award is clear: We need others like Nancy to step to the fore and tackle the exciting projects of tomorrow.
Let’s brainstorm a bit and imagine:
• With the old metal Lazarus building slated to be razed, another opportunity arises to create exciting public/private space at the top of Riverside Park. Imagine, if you will, that the backside of the buildings from the National Bank of Middlebury south to the bridge, were remodeled as a second front-facing facade sporting retail, dining and entertainment options that faced the river and the park. Cut the trees down at the ground level of the parking lot for the view of the sunset and it would be magnificent. Then restore the old mill to some semblance of a historic structure (even if just for viewing). Parking would have to be rearranged (much is currently dedicated to the bank), but a possibility is to create new parking where the Lazarus building currently is and dedicate those spots to bank use.
Then, get rid of two of the more offensive electric utility poles directly in the line of sight (leaving two others for the transformers) and bury the wires for about 75 yards to open the viewshed from Riverside Park to St. Stephens Episcopal Church as well as to the newly remodeled backside of the bank building and those to the south.
In the meantime, the town must negotiate with the Agency of Natural Resources to better manage the garbage in the eddy at the base of Riverside Park and reduce the annual onslaught of downed trees that tarnishes what otherwise is a gorgeous views of the falls. It doesn’t need to be manicured, and we must reasonably protect fish and wildlife habitat, but we don’t have to agree to forever harbor a trash dump in the middle of downtown. And, since we’re dreaming, why not create a more defined foot-trail along the Otter Creek for another few hundred yards past the footbridge. It’s ideal space for a pedestrian walkway — a wild landscape right in the midst of downtown.
• Up the creek just past the Cross Street Bridge is a spit of low-lying land that forces a bend in the river right before Mister Ups Restaurant. The land, where the old town Ice House used to be, is perfect for another downtown park. Pedestrian access is challenging, but it’s prime for a contest between area landscape architects to envision how beautiful that riverfront acreage could be — all at a very low cost.
• Easier targets just need a little enthusiasm and a bit of collective muscle. The entrances to the Battell Woods, Means Woods and Wright Park look like the kind of roadside pullovers where a drug deal could go down. It’s disgraceful. The woods themselves are lovely and offer a quiet, shady path for runners, walkers and mountain bikers. But you have to live in the neighborhood to even know they are public parks. It’s a project just ripe for public involvement.
• As for the next town project, our vote is to squirrel away a few extra road improvement dollars to reimagine Exchange Street from the corner of Elm (Greg’s Market) to Route 7. As our industrial center moves in that direction, we should strive to make the area feel more connected to the town core. At the very least, this stretch should be bicycle and pedestrian friendly — easily accomplished by widening the road and putting a striped lane on either side with a two-foot paved shoulder. There is land to do it now, if we only would — or at least preserve the option.
Let’s also plan (a few years from now when taxes drop as our grand list grows) to install streetlights that add a touch of civility to what is currently a barren landscape. Or, imagine this: a two-lane road with a pedestrian island in the middle that features a running path with planted trees. Perfect.
If I can dream of these things in an hour, what can the community dream about as a collective whole in a day or two, or a week? What will we make happen in the next decade or two that makes residents proud? And who will step up and accept the next award as Outstanding Citizen or Business?
As I think of the places Middlebury could go, I’m reminded of selectman Victor Nuovo’s words at Tuesday’s meeting: From the beginning, Middlebury’s founding fathers conceived of it as a thriving city, not a quaint, sleepy village. It’s always been destined, he said, to be a dynamic community with exciting developments on its horizon.
If we believe that, there are many opportunities just waiting for a community member to take the lead. That path starts by saying “yes” and then setting to the task just as Nancy always has — one step at a time with your eyes fixed on the prize.