Opinion: Let's talk about Middlebury — A brief history of the town offices, gym

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of columns by members of Middlebury’s Town Offices and Recreation Facilities Steering Committee.

The lively debate surrounding the Town Offices and Recreation Facilities project is but the latest in a series of public conversations about the future of Middlebury’s aging town offices and gymnasium that reaches back 20 years. The two connected buildings — the town’s former high school, built in 1911 and seriously damaged by fire in 1954, and its gymnasium, a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project completed in 1939 — have been home to Middlebury’s municipal offices and a focal point for community recreation since 1961, when the town’s offices moved from what is today the Town Hall Theater and into the rehabilitated remains of the former high school. Today, more than 50 years later, longstanding design deficiencies and decaying infrastructure have rendered the town offices in particular costly to operate, non-compliant with federal and state public building codes and ill-suited to the needs of municipal government, having been designed as a high school. The Municipal Gym, while presenting its own challenges, has been viewed as the better candidate for rehabilitation.

Since the mid-1990s, Middlebury’s elected selectboards, town staff and members of the community have been working collaboratively with a talented cadre of professional engineers and architects to find an affordable solution to the need to replace the town offices and/or gym — through rehabilitation, reconstruction or relocation.

The first of these efforts began in 1994, when voters at town meeting approved an $8,000 appropriation for an engineering study of the “Town Offices and Police Station Wing” of the building. The selectboard engaged three firms — Lawes Consulting Engineers, Wolbach Engineering and GWR Engineering — to conduct a structural evaluation of the building and a full review of its mechanical and electrical systems. The final report, presented in the fall, estimated the cost to repair structural deficiencies in the roof and floor plate, upgrade plumbing and heating systems and cure a variety of building code issues at nearly $373,000. Another study by Guillot, Vivian, Vehmann Architects (GVV) in 1997 pegged the cost to renovate the town offices at $1.2 million vs. $1.5 million to replace it entirely. Budget pressures caused the selectboard to defer further consideration of any of this work for several years. A partial gym renovation was completed in 1995, however, which included critical masonry and roof repairs, a new ceiling, interior lighting fixtures and paint.

Voters gathered at town meeting in 1998 to consider for the first time a Middlebury College proposal to exchange the existing town offices site for other college land, plus additional funding. The results of an opinion poll conducted after the meeting strongly favored keeping the current site. When the college approached the selectboard later that year with an enhanced, $3-million offer for the town offices property, the board responded by appointing a Siting Committee to study and prioritize potential sites in Middlebury that could provide a new home for the town offices. GVV prepared conceptual plans for several options proposed by the Siting Committee, which included building or renovating the structures in place, relocating municipal functions to the college’s Twilight Hall or new construction on the Osborne House/Steele Mobil properties. Voters reviewed the Siting Committee’s report, GVV’s conceptual designs and the college’s enhanced offer at town meeting in 1999, but no formal vote or action was taken.

Concluding that the college’s $3-million property-exchange offer presented less of a tax burden to Middlebury residents than either rebuilding or renovating on site, the selectboard appointed a Building Committee in the spring of 1999 to focus on evaluating the Osborne House/Steele Mobil parcels as a potential site for new town offices. Ongoing corporate merger talks between Exxon and Mobil, however, delayed planning for a possible acquisition of the Steele Mobil property for nearly 18 months, during which time little progress was made. Frustration over the lack of public information about the proposed Town Offices project came to a head in December 2000, when a citizens’ petition was filed calling for a town vote on the Osborne House/Steele Mobil site at 2001 town meeting.

In an opinion piece that appeared in the Addison Independent just prior to Town Meeting Day, Middlebury College President John McCardell explained that, in exchange for the current town offices site the college would cover the debt service on a $3-million public bond for construction of new town offices, pay for the demolition of the existing building and gymnasium and construct a public park in its place. At town meeting in 2001, voters considered two advisory articles related to the proposed project: 1) Advise the selectboard to cease negotiations for the Osborne House and Steele/Mobil properties (approved by a vote of 368 to 305), and 2) Advise the selectboard to proceed with planning for a new or renovated municipal office building on the current site (approved by a vote of 337 to 333).

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With this guidance from the voters, the selectboard hired engineering consultant Judith Bell Harris in the summer of 2001 to re-evaluate program and space requirements for the town offices, the gymnasium and the Middlebury Police Department, which was outgrowing the basement space it occupied in the municipal office building. The selectboard ultimately expanded this work to include the creation of schematic plans for a possible joint Middlebury police/state police facility on Exchange Street and an analysis comparing the cost of building on-site vs. relocating the town offices and gym to the college-owned Maple Manor property. The proposed Exchange Street project was ultimately dropped when the state police chose to site its new barracks in New Haven.

Voters at town meeting in 2002 were asked to consider another citizens’ petition directing the selectboard to enter into an agreement with Middlebury College that would allow it to remove the town offices and gym and create a public park on the site. In return, the college would convey the Maple Manor property to the town for the construction of new town offices and a recreation facility and guarantee re-payment of a $3-million bond to fund construction. Voters rejected this article by a tally of 690 to 500.

With the engineering analysis clearly showing construction on the Maple Manor site as the higher-cost alternative, the selectboard created an ad hoc Middlebury Town Hall/Middlebury Police Department Building Committee in June 2002 to focus exclusively on renovating or replacing the current town offices and gym on-site. In August, the board engaged Bread Loaf Corporation to develop several conceptual design options and cost estimates for renovation vs. new construction. In September, citing advantages in site aesthetics, space efficiency and improved public access, the selectboard unanimously agreed to endorse the concept of constructing new town offices attached to a fully renovated gym. Bread Loaf, meanwhile, began developing design concepts and cost estimates for a new Middlebury Police Department facility at the former wastewater treatment facility off Seymour Street.

At a special town meeting the night before Election Day, November 2002, voters were asked to consider a proposed $6-million bond to fund construction of new town offices on the current site along with gym renovations, and the relocation of the police department to the old wastewater site. Voters narrowly defeated this proposal, sending it down by only 109 votes out of 2,777 ballots cast. A post-bond vote survey, however, showed substantial public support for new police department facility. When the selectboard asked voters at a special town meeting in May 2003 to support a $1.8 million bond to fund the construction of a new police department facility as a standalone project, it won approval by a 466 to 324 margin.

The Middlebury Police Department moved into its new facility in 2004, and planning for the town offices and gym grew quiet for a time.

In the fall of 2007, Middlebury College stepped forward with an offer to pay $9 million toward the $16 million price tag for what would become the Cross Street Bridge. The college board of trustees voted to support the funding of the bridge on Oct. 6, 2007. Coincidentally, this came just before a serious train derailment on Oct. 22 demonstrated the vulnerability of Middlebury’s sole downtown bridge. While the community began to turn its full attention to that bridge project, the selectboard quietly continued to investigate options for addressing the town offices and gym.

In the spring of 2008, facing rising fuel oil prices and an estimated $100,000 heating bill for the town offices and gym for the upcoming winter, the selectboard turned its attention to finding temporary homes for the town’s government functions and recreation programs until a viable plan for reconstruction and rehab of the current facility could be developed. The results of an evaluation by Harris & Harris Consulting of the former Chittenden Bank Building on Court Street as a temporary home for the town offices proved disappointing. The idea of temporary relocation stalled.

• • • • •

Four months after the Cross Street Bridge opened in October 2010, the selectboard had once again returned to the subject of moving the town offices planning process forward. The completion of the bridge and roundabout had dramatically altered the southerly approach to the town offices property, and interest was building around the idea of developing a new Community Center that would anchor the south end of Main Street and could host space for the town offices and gym as well as a visitor center, public restrooms, and a variety of public organizations and educational institutions.

The selectboard formed the Community Center Steering Committee in March 2011 to begin exploring the concept and to reach out to a variety of community organizations as potential partners. At the same time, Vermont Integrated Architecture (VIA) was engaged to conduct a planning study and develop conceptual designs for the new building based on community input. Working together through the summer and into the fall, the Steering Committee and VIA prepared design concepts for a full renovation of the gym and two options for the town offices: 1) a complete interior renovation within the existing building shell, or 2) construction of a new building.

Community members reviewing these designs at a Town Open Forum in December 2011 expressed a clear preference for construction of a new building, rather than renovating the current town offices structure. The college also approached the selectboard privately at this time to offer its Osborne House property in exchange for the town offices site. The board declined the college’s offer.

With its focus squarely on new construction, the Steering Committee directed VIA to explore a new potential scenario: reconfiguring the Ilsley Library to accommodate the town offices and constructing a new library on the current town offices site. A preliminary estimate in the $2 million to $4 million range for redesigning the existing library, however, proved cost-prohibitive and the Steering Committee did not further pursue the concept.

Meanwhile, another competing community priority had its day at town meeting in 2012 when voters approved, by a margin of 782 to 367, a $4.6-million bond to fund construction and land-acquisition costs for the renovation and expansion of Fire Station No. 1 on Seymour Street and the replacement of Fire Station No. 2 in East Middlebury.

With the year-long planning study drawing to a close, the Steering Committee and VIA presented to the selectboard in June 2012 a “Town Offices & Community Center Schematic Design Summary,” which recommended the construction of a new Community Center totaling roughly 23,000 square feet. Working with cost estimators from Bread Loaf, VIA pegged the construction-only portion of the cost for a new building at approximately $8.9 million, which included $2 million for gym renovations.

In light of the 2004 police department bond of $1.8 million and the $4.6 million fire department bond, the selectboard charged the Steering Committee with investigating ways to reduce the Town Offices and Community Center project cost and to investigate non-tax funding sources. The Steering Committee formed two task forces:

• The Gym Task Force immediately shifted its focus from a full building renovation to identifying only essential projects needed to stabilize the building and improve energy efficiency. The goal was to work within a proposed budget of $500,000.

•  The Finance and Fundraising Task Force set its sights on exploring options for financing the majority of the estimated town offices construction costs through a combination of congressional earmarks, grants and private capital funding.

• • • • •

By early 2013, a formal engineering evaluation of the gym’s mechanical, plumbing and electrical systems — conducted by Engineering Services of Vermont — estimated the cost of upgrading these systems, alone, to be approximately $530,000. Other critical repairs, including insulation for the roof and walls, window replacements, installation of an elevator and a code-compliant egress stair could add another $1.5 million to this total.

With a moratorium on congressional earmarks and a lack of federal and state grants for capital projects, the Finance and Fundraising Task Force soon shifted its focus exclusively to private fundraising. Several candid discussions with financial experts and venture capitalists throughout the summer and fall of 2012 led task force members to the conclusion that there was insufficient private-sector interest to make the project a reality.

Recognizing the limited potential for successfully funding the project through private fundraising, selectboard Chairman Dean George, selectboard Vice Chairman Victor Nuovo and Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay reached out to Middlebury College leadership in the spring of this year to discuss the prospect for financial assistance from the college to help bring the project to fruition. A few weeks later, college officials responded with the proposal that we have before us to consider today. The terms of this agreement between the town and the college will be discussed in detail in the next installment of this series of articles about the Town Offices and Recreation Facility project.

Editor’s note: Since this piece was originally posted it was edited slightly in two spots to correct errors.

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