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More than a gift, a bridge to the future

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Today’s front-page headline is a stunner: Middlebury College pledges $9 million to help the town build the long-discussed Cross Street Bridge. As a gift to the town, it’s huge and most generous. But the bigger story is the message behind the gift — it’s a new era in town-gown relations that promises a greater degree of cooperation and interaction to the benefit of both.

And that’s terrific.

This new era is punctuated by several factors:

• The current generation of students are doers, says Middlebury College President Ron Liebowitz, and the college campus may not be big enough for them throughout their four-year stint. Interaction with the town and area communities allows them to spread their wings, pursue interests off campus, provide valuable services and gain an understanding of community outside the college.

• As students have changed, so has the town. This isn’t the ’60s, the self-centered days of the 1980s, or the boom times of the mid-’90s. We compete in a global economy now, global warming is everyone’s concern, the Internet has made the world smaller and larger at the same time. It’s an era in which fresh, young eyes can have an invigorating and progressive influence while learning from others, and an era in which students and local residents can build new alliances for the greater good.

• It’s also an era in which state and federal aid will continue to diminish in important areas, leaving communities to fend for themselves in creative and innovative ways. Teamwork that unites businesses, institutions, non-profits and town government to achieve a common objective will be more important than ever before to the future well being of our communities.

As town selectboard Chairman John Tenny said, “As we look at the state of Vermont and its very limited resources, the traditional mechanisms … do not necessarily work well for communities, nor will they in the future. I think more and more we are going to be required — if we are to advance our communities — to do this kind of local partnering.”

That said, and even with the significant pledge from the college, much still has to fall in place to make the bridge a reality. The total cost is $16 million, leaving $7 million to come from other sources. About $1.3 million is expected to come from a federal appropriation to help with the roundabout at Main, Cross and College streets. There is an appeal to Porter Hospital to help finance the effort via a 30-year pledge, in exchange for providing more reliable access for its emergency vehicles. (This is particularly an economic consideration for the hospital during the proposed reconstruction of the railroad underpasses at Main Street and Merchants Row, or any future work on the Battell Bridge itself as emergency care could be diverted to Rutland or Burlington if road access is limited.) As proposed, the Cross Street Bridge could be completed as early as 2010, making it feasible to delay substantial work on the railroad underpasses until the bridge is completed.

Local property taxpayers will be expected to finance about $2 million over 30 years, which is roughly the same as residents would have paid for the town’s 10 percent share through traditional funding — only that could be 15-20 years from now and the bridge could cost twice as much. The town is working on other ways to finance the remaining $2 million to $4 million, with a commitment to keep the property tax burden capped at $2 million over that 30-year period.

While there is much to do, what’s most encouraging is the can-do attitude and the determination of community leaders, including the college administration and trustees, to see — after 55 years of talking about it — that the job gets done.

That determination and this new era in town-gown relations is truly cause, as selectman Victor Nuovo said, for celebration.

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It’s also important to note that the $9 million pledge, while large in scale, is not out of character. On the contrary, under President John McCardell the college agreed to annual payments to the town in lieu of taxes more than a decade ago. It has long been a generous contributor to United Way campaigns and various other organizations in the area, has resurrected crumbling historic buildings (the old court house and Painter House are two) in the heart of town, and has been instrumental in the resurrection of the Town Hall Theatre — recently pledging $1 million in exchange for students to be able to use studio space, on top of its previous $125,000 donation.

The college has been, in short, an exemplary corporate citizen to the town.

But today’s agreement signals more.

“I think the college administration and the board taking this step sends a message to students, faculty and staff about what our expectations are for engagement with the town in a meaningful way,” Liebowitz told the Independent. “That it’s not just a gift every year of $216,000 in lieu of taxes. It’s to make something better, improve on something.”

As a community, Middlebury could not have a more open invitation to form student-to-community alliances, to work with the college on issues ranging from traffic to economic develop­ment, and to share the warmth and dynamic energy of each other’s cultures.

The agreement also sends a message to the community to think anew; to break down old prejudices and imagine new opportunities. It is, both leaders of the town and college agreed, a bridge to a brighter future — both literally and figuratively.

Angelo S. Lynn

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