MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College has pledged $5.5 million toward a $7.5 million plan that would result in a new downtown municipal building and a new gym that would be located near the Memorial Sports Center off Mary Hogan Drive.
In return for its pledge — which comes on the heels of its donation of $9 million toward the $16 million Cross Street Bridge project — the college would receive the current Middlebury municipal building site at the intersection of College and South Main streets, which would be cleared and maintained as a public park. And the college would also receive a town-owned parcel near the intersection of Cross and Water streets (which formerly hosted the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society meeting house), on which the college-owned Osborne House would be relocated from its current spot at 77 Main St.
A new two-story, 8,000-9,000-square-foot municipal building would then be erected at the vacated 77 Main St. location, next to the Ilsley Library.
“We’re very excited that the college is willing to work with us on this,” Middlebury selectboard Chairman Dean George said on Tuesday morning of the tentative plan, which must be further refined in anticipation of a public vote sometime this fall.
“A lot of work remains to be done.”
BACKGROUND OF DEAL
George and selectboard Vice Chairman Victor Nuovo explained that town officials approached the college earlier this spring with the idea of partnering on a plan to replace the municipal offices and connected town gym, buildings that are deteriorating, poorly configured, and have outdated electrical, heating and plumbing systems.
The 102-year-old municipal building consists of the salvaged remnants of the former Middlebury High School building that was severely damaged by a fire almost 60 years ago. The well-used town gym, erected in 1939, is hemorrhaging heat in the winter, needs some new windows, doors and bleachers, and also needs some new changing rooms and shower/toilet facilities, according to a committee that recently studied the building and its deficiencies.
The town hired Vermont Integrated Architecture (VIA) in 2011 to study the two buildings and propose some new structures to replace them at their current location. VIA delivered the selectboard some plans showing how it might keep the gym and replace the municipal complex with a new, energy-efficient building of 16,200-19,000 square feet that would house municipal offices, public meeting spaces, a visitors’ center and the nonprofit occupants of the current building, including the local teen center and senior center. The space would have also accommodated some additional organizations as paying tenants.
Proposed price tag for the plan: $6 million to $10 million.
But selectboard members were reluctant to ask townspeople to support a bond issue of that magnitude, not wanting to add to a local property tax rate that was recently augmented by around 4.5 cents as a result of a $4.625-million makeover of the community’s two fire stations.
So officials were faced with the prospect of trying to raise the bulk of the funds for a multi-million-dollar town offices/gym project on their own, or maintaining the status quo. And maintaining the status quo, Nuovo noted, would still cost around $3 million. That’s how much it would take to make basic repairs to the two buildings while postponing the decision for a bigger project, according to Nuovo. A fundraising consultant told a local ad hoc panel that raising the $6 million to $10 million for the project would be a Herculean task.
“We were at a point a few months ago where we were not sure what direction to go in,” George said of the financial obstacle.
“If we did nothing, (the buildings) would continue to deteriorate.”
So, adopting the stance of “nothing ventured, nothing gained,” the selectboard broached the topic with college brass during a series of recent private town-gown meetings.
“We said, ‘We can’t do this without your help,’” said Nuovo, Middlebury College’s Charles A. Dana professor emeritus of philosophy, who was instrumental in facilitating previous town-gown collaborations.
The town laid all its cards and potential bartering assets on the table. Middlebury College and town leaders, more than a decade ago, discussed the possibility of swapping nearby Twilight Hall for the municipal building property. It’s a move that proponents at the time said would give the town a solid structure in which to relocate municipal offices while giving the college (and townspeople) a space that — once cleared — would create a park and restore a sweeping vista of the campus from the downtown.
It’s a deal that was never consummated, however.
But college officials this spring agreed to consider the town’s latest overture, this time without Twilight Hall in the equation. Middlebury College President Ron Liebowitz, during an interview with the Addison Independent, said the town’s pitch resonated with him on several levels, the most significant of which was the benefit of making the town stronger and healthier with a new office building.
“The general approach I have always taken is that the town and college are inextricably tied together,” Liebowitz said, noting that endeavors that benefit one of the two entities often help the other. “If you believe the health of the town is linked to the health of the college and vice versa, then it is an easy project to see.”
“The status quo was fine with us, but we do recognize also that the town has issues with the municipal building currently, and also has issues with future expansion of programs,” Liebowitz added. “The municipal building in its current state will limit that. The whole idea here is to help the town improve itself.”
So college trustees last month agreed the institution would pledge a total of $5.5 million toward what is estimated as a total $7.5 million project that would result in new town offices at 77 Main St. and a new, 14,500-square-foot municipal gym near the town tennis courts, swimming pool and the Memorial Sports Center.
George said $4.5 million of that college sum would come in the form of a bond guarantee toward construction costs; the remaining $1 million would cover the costs of relocating the Osborne House, demolishing the municipal building and gym, and creating a public park on the current municipal building site.
This would leave a $2 million sum the town would likely bond, according to Nuovo and George, a debt obligation that would add roughly 2 cents to the Middlebury property tax rate. Townspeople would be asked to endorse the project as a whole, as well as the related bond issue, in order for it to proceed.
A majority of the selectboard is hopeful residents endorse the project, which they believe would give the town a cost-effective, downtown-based municipal building; a new gym in an area already surrounded by recreation facilities; and a new public park.
But Selectman Craig Bingham offers a different point of view. He believes the town offices should remain at their current location, and points to past public and selectboard votes affirming that position.
Bingham said the college has long sought to acquire and clear the current municipal building site. He believes such a move would be misguided.
“The prominence of the current site makes it ideal for the construction of our new town offices,” Bingham stated in an e-mail. “I don’t think that a strong argument can be made that there is a need for even more green space in town.”
And Bingham contends the town could creatively finance new town offices on its own. That could be accomplished through two potential revenue streams, according to Bingham: Anticipated property tax receipts (around $300,000 annually) from the local segment of a proposed natural gas pipeline that would extend from Middlebury to the International Paper Co. mill in Ticonderoga, N.Y.; and surplus funds generated by Middlebury’s local option tax that is paying down some of the costs of the Cross Street Bridge. Bingham acknowledged that it would take voter approval to tap those revenue sources for a town office/gym project.
George was skeptical that the revenue streams Bingham identified would be adequate to pay down debt on a project of $6 million or more. The proposed natural gas pipeline has yet to be reviewed by state authorities and George said the local option tax must be dedicated to paying off and maintaining the Cross Street Bridge.
“I understand (Bingham’s) position,” George said.
HURDLES TO CLEAR
Even with residents’ support, there will still be some hurdles to cross before the project becomes a reality. Among those hurdles will be a permitting process that will require demolition permission from the Vermont Division of Historic Preservation. Both the municipal building and gym are considered by the state structures of historic significance, noted Nuovo.
And relocating the Osborne House will be a delicate task. The structure, built in 1816 by Daniel Henshaw, will continue to be used as faculty housing in its new location, according to Liebowitz. The building would continue to be subject to property taxes at the new 6 Water St. spot, which is town-owned and thus currently not generating any property tax revenues. The town purchased the property several years ago for $175,000 to make way for the approach to the new Cross Street Bridge.
Nuovo said he realizes some residents feel an affinity for the current municipal building site and might not be eager to see the town part with it.
“I love that site, and people have all sorts of visions about what we might do there,” Nuovo said. “But you can’t live in a fantasy world. In the real world, you have to pay for these things. And I think we’re going to be able to do it.”
Reporter John Flowers is at firstname.lastname@example.org.