Upgrades unveiled at Middlebury sports arena


MICHAEL McAULIFFE, PRESIDENT OF Friends of Middlebury Hockey, stands in the facility’s new, heated second-floor space that provides a wonderful view of the rink below. The new space, which includes restrooms, a multi-purpose room and an elevator, opened to spectators two weeks ago. Independent photo/John Flowers

MIDDLEBURY — Visitors to Middlebury’s Memorial Sports Center have developed a new perspective of the blossoming, community-driven recreation facility at 296 Buttolph Drive.

That new perspective comes from now being able to view the hockey action from a warm space some 20 feet above the ice rink. Workers on Monday were putting the finishing touches on the center’s new second floor space, made possible through the generosity of local businesses, civic groups and individual donors.

“The amount of love this community has for Memorial Sports Center and for the families who use this facility year-round is really breathtaking, and it’s a privilege to be a part of it,” said Friends of Middlebury Hockey (FOMH) President Michael McAuliffe.

Memorial Sports Center opened in 1993 following a wildly successful community fundraising campaign. The facility is managed and operated by FOMH, a tax-exempt organization that supports local youth hockey programs. The center has long included an 18,000-square-foot rink, four locker rooms, and spaces for concession sales and skate rentals. And as of two weeks ago, the facility includes a heated, second-floor viewing area that also boasts bathrooms, relocated concession stand, a multi-purpose room, and an administrative office.

Though inconspicuous, the most expensive and complex component of the project is a new elevator that ushers spectators into a spacious, heated perch from which they can comfortably view action on the skating rink or turf (during the warmer months) below.

The elevated, carpeted viewing area includes free Wi-Fi and enough seating and standing room to accommodate up to 150 spectators. It is fronted by 60 running feet of 8-foot-tall glass. No longer will viewers have to trudge outdoors across sports center property to the old pool house restrooms.

“Folks love the view, being able to come in and watch what’s going on on the surface without being cold,” McAuliffe said with a smile. “The first night we had it open, the biggest (cheer) came from the Middlebury Union High School girls’ (hockey) team, when they came up and saw the women’s restroom.”

Planning for this latest phase of Memorial Sports Center improvements dates back to 2017. Boosters wanted to provide visitors with a more comfortable viewing experience. They priced out a list of desired upgrades.

“That good-faith construction estimate in 2017 came back at about $350,000,” McAuliffe said. “We’ve been fundraising for the past three years and at this point we have $326,000 pledged from community donations.”

The 330 separate donations have thus far ranged from a few dollars to a $25,000 pledge from Middlebury American Legion Post No. 27.

In addition, Otter Creek Engineering, the National Bank of Middlebury, Neat Repeats, Champlain Valley Equipment, the Lions Club and Rotary Club have all pledged $10,000 each, according to McAuliffe. And FOMH just received a $15,000 “recreation facilities” grant through the Vermont Department of Buildings & General Services that will be applied to the project costs.

Organizers knew the $350,000 project estimate would likely change as a result of increases in the cost of construction materials and an abundance of work for area contractors. So they weren’t shocked when a new estimate placed the final cost at around $500,000, according to McAuliffe. As owner of the sports center, the town of Middlebury agreed (through a townwide vote last March) to serve as the borrowing entity for another $100,000, debt that FOMH will pay back through fundraising efforts, business sponsorships, donations and rental revenues from sports center users.

This is a town/FOMH borrowing arrangement that has worked twice before, most recently in 2008, for a project that resulted in new locker rooms with showers and a fit-out of the second floor. Not one dime of taxpayer money has been used to build or improve the Memorial Sports Center.

Friends leaders are confident the second-floor project will be completed for around $430,000. That has meant working with Silver Maple Construction to identify cost savings — such as forgoing a sound-baffling ceiling design — and volunteer labor to drive down the price.

More than 35 volunteers — including longtime sports center supporter Bill Ford — cumulatively worked dozens of hours installing sheetrock and other chores. Their contributions shaved around $30,000 off the project price tag, McAuliffe noted.

“When we look back on this project, I think it will be that volunteer work that made it possible to bring this in without additional borrowing,” he said.

Organizers thought about cancelling plans for second-floor carpeting, sticking with the concrete surface. Luckily, the Memorial Sports Center Commission, which manages the (sponsorship) banner program for the building, stepped up and paid for the carpeting.

“We belt-tightened wherever we could without compromising the vision of the project,” McAuliffe said, alluding to things like more basic wall treatments in the new restrooms and concession space. “A lot of it was simplification.”

STILL TO BE DONE

A few chores remain to be done before the books close on the second-floor work. Among them: completing the concessions space, developing a “thank you” for sponsors, and installing television monitors that will afford a closer look at rink action and broadcasts of professional/college games. McAuliffe said the monitors can also be patched into a service that would allow for online streaming of Middlebury Amateur Hockey Association away games.

Response to the upgrades has been overwhelmingly positive, according to McAuliffe.

“It’s been a lot of fun to come up here and see families sitting near the glass watching what’s going on on the rink, while the younger kids are bringing up toys and sitting on the carpet and playing together,” he said.

These latest improvements satisfy an immediate need and give the center more versatility. As previously reported by the Independent, the Vermont Brew arena football team is poised to make the Memorial Sports Center its base for home games next year (click here to read that story).

“Memorial Sports Center was always conceptualized as more than just a hockey facility,” McAuliffe said. “Finishing out the second floor gets us closer to that vision of year-round, multi-purpose use.”

Mark Gleason served as construction coordinator for FOMH. He marveled at the way in which people stepped up to get the project done.

“It was a great community effort,” Gleason said. “It’s very satisfying to see it completed, and seeing parents watch their kids on the ice while being warm.”

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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