Middlebury: Board wrestles with skepticism over project
MIDDLEBURY — Plans by the town to collaborate with Middlebury College on a more than $8 million town office and municipal gym project continued to meet resistance at Wednesday’s Select Board meeting.
Residents opposed to the proposal remained skeptical that the project is necessary and questioned the board on why the existing town office and adjacent gym could not be renovated.
The project, which comes up for a bond vote in March, suffered a minor setback when the board failed to approve a revised term sheet outlining the general parameters of an agreement with the college.
The board also voted down a request by the Ilsley Library to expand the design of the proposed town office to include a children’s room to relieve overcrowding. The board and the library trustees decided to revisit the overcrowding issue after the March vote.
In addition, the board formally expanded the possible locations for the new gym to include the Mary Hogan Elementary School site and a parcel of land off Creek Road.
The college has offered to pay $4.5 million toward the cost of a new town office and gym with the town paying the rest. Based on revised cost estimates, the town’s share would be at least $2 million and as much as $2.7 million. In return, the town would deed the town office and gym property in the heart of downtown to the college. The college would pay $1 million to raze the buildings, turn the property into a park and gateway to the campus, and relocate the Osborne House where the new town office would be built at 77 Main St., next to Ilsley Library.
The deal would be structured so the town would bond for the entire construction cost with the college, reimbursing the town $4.5 million.
The meeting Wednesday turned into a debate about dueling facts and figures.
Resident Ron Kohn read a list of improvements that have already been made to the gym. He said the gym is structurally sound and additional funding would bring the facility up to speed at less cost than building a new gym.
“It looks like we’re a third of the way there to rehabbing the building,” Kohn said.
He said the addition of an elevator, insulation and repair to a stairway,shouldn’t be “show stoppers.”
Kohn took aim at plans to demolish the town offices. He said before the town invests in a new building, an engineering study and cost estimate is needed to determine the soundness of the existing town office. “With that, I would ask that it would be revisited … and see if this building is structurally sound,” he said.
The gym was built in 1938 while the adjacent town offices are housed in what remains of the former high school, which was gutted by fire in the 1950s.
Select Board Chairman Dean George said Kohn’s estimate to continue to rehab the gym was too low. And George said when an assessment on the town office building was done, “it became more and more apparent that continuing to look at putting money into renovating this building was going to be as expensive or more expensive than removing it and putting a new structure here.”
George said a new building was estimated to cost $8 million to $10 million. He said that was a price tag the board last year felt was too much of a burden for taxpayers to bear. At that point, the board decided to pursue other options, he said. “We had to find other ways to make this work,” George said.
But Selectwoman Susan Shashok pointed out that the $8 million to $10 million estimate came with all “the bells and whistles” and that a new building might be built for less.
Shashok said the type of “he said, she said,” back-and-forth discussion was confusing.
“I don’t know who to believe at this point,” she said.
One man in the packed conference room said it “would be remiss” for the board not to conduct a feasibility study on the town office. He said that needs to be done “before we throw the building under the bus.”
Another resident said the town really needs hard numbers before making a decision. And he said if the costs are equal, it’s better to renovate than to build from scratch.
Nancy Malcolm, a member of the town office and recreation center steering committee, said the town looked at outside funding sources to help defray the cost of a new building, including grants and private donors. “None of this panned out,” Malcolm said.
Another committee member, John Barstow, said the town needs do a better job of communicating the facts. One of the unsaid issues, Barstow said, is the “elephant in the room.” And by that he meant the college.
“People feel queasy about the deal put together by a few officials with the college,” he said.
He said the way it was done “puts the college in a bad light they don’t deserve.”
Faced with traffic, parking and safety issues with the Mary Hogan site, the board authorized the steering committee to investigate the Creek Road property as a possible location for the new 11,507-square-foot gym.
Ruth Hardy, a steering committee member, expressed dismay at the entire process. Before deciding on a new gym, Hardy said, the needs of the community should be determined first.
“The process has been incredibly frustrating,” said Hardy, chairwoman if the ID4 school board that oversees the Mary Hogan Elementary School.
Hardy, like Shashok, questioned the figures being thrown around.
“I don’t trust the numbers that I’m seeing,” she said.
The vote on the revised term sheet with the college failed on a 3 to 3 vote (Selectman Victor Nuovo was absent). Shashok, who supported an earlier version, voted against it. Shashok insisted the college agree to maintain the property in “perpetuity” as green space. Instead, the revised term sheet set a time limit of 99 years. It means the term sheet will go back to the college for its further discussion on including maintainance of the site as a park in perpetuity.
Shashok recused herself recently from the town office and gym project over a potential conflict of interest. Her husband was employed by Middlebury Interactive Languages, a business that is partially owned by Middlebury College. But Shashok said because her husband is no longer employed there, a conflict of interest no longer exists.
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