MONTPELIER — City councilors are suddenly thinking beyond Barre Street when it comes to indoor recreational facilities, which may mean the one that was built as an armory in 1932, deeded to the city in 1970 and badly in need of an upgrade will be re-purposed.
Presented with a pair of potentially game-changing alternatives when it comes to what has been a running discussion about indoor recreation, councilors generally agreed both appeared more promising than a dated plan to invest $5.2 million renovating the recreation center on Barre Street.
Both could cost more than the Barre Street upgrade councilors have considered putting on the ballot more than once before, but they were told that $5.2 million estimate is likely low and most of the money would be spent on abatement and accessibility issues associated with a 90-year-old building.
The alternatives would avoid any of those expenses because neither involves an existing building.
One proposal contemplates construction of a new facility on the informal city-owned ball field off Elm Street in the recreation area that is home to the municipal swimming pool and outdoor tennis courts.
The other could conceivably be part of a broader plan to redevelop roughly 130 acres of privately owned property, which for many years was home to the local Elks Lodge and its nine-hole golf course.
Backed by a nonprofit group dubbed “The Hub,” councilors were told by the chair of its board, Ethan Atkin, that proposal will advance in some fashion whether the city decides to be part of it or not.
Unlike Barre Street where parking is in short supply and expansion isn’t an option, both locations offer the potential to bring more recreational opportunities — from tennis and basketball courts to a walking track and weight rooms — under one new roof.
Neither location is considered as accessible as the center on Barre Street — a drawback Recreation Director Arne McMullen acknowledged. However, he said both have considerably more potential to expand and enhance recreational opportunities for residents of Montpelier and beyond.
The Elm Street site wouldn’t be any less accessible than the pool already and while the property The Hub hopes to develop is even more remote, the bike path now extends just beyond the drive leading up to the property the Elks Club sold to City Properties five years ago, and subsequently leased before moving out in February.
Councilors said the prospect of a public-private partnership was worth exploring and indicated they were intrigued by The Hub’s proposal to create a “recreational and social community center” on property that could easily accommodate soccer fields, hiking and biking trails a disc golf course and a dog park.
Atkin said that doesn’t include the property owner’s plan to renovate the existing building to house a social center that would include a restaurant, brew pub and bar, as well as game rooms. He said it also doesn’t include The Hub’s plan to build a “sports barn” that could include, among other things indoor tennis and pickleball courts and a climbing wall.
Fundraising for that aspect of the project is underway and while it has taken 18 months to get to this point, Atkin said the group’s “extremely optimistic goal” is to be open this time next year.
Mayor Anne Watson said she was intrigued by the proposal and interested in exploring whether it was a viable option for a city-owned recreational facility.
Even if the answer to that question is no, Watson said she liked the look of a conceptual plan that reflected a rich mix of indoor and outdoor recreational options.
“I’m interested in all the possibilities there even if we (the city) don’t have our own building on the property,” she said.
Councilors were told the estimated cost of a new multi-use recreational facility — currently estimated at $5 to $7 million — would be the same no matter where it was built. However, while the city owns one of the proposed locations it doesn’t own the other and that could lead to added costs and potential risks that haven’t been quantified or evaluated.
The council’s consensus to shift focus away from Barre Street was crystalized by Councilor Conor Casey, who described that project as “acceptable, but not exciting.” Casey said the two new alternatives checked both boxes for him and warranted additional review.
That general agreement prompted Council Jack McCullough to ask whether the Barre Street building might be converted into affordable housing and one resident to wonder whether it could be converted into a homeless shelter.
Those ideas, and possibly others, may eventually be explored, but for now it will remain an old building with access issues, a functional gym with no room for spectators and an underutilized lower level.
Though the council isn’t remotely ready to propose a bond vote, Casey suggested it might consider asking a non-binding question in March with respect to the two new alternatives in the interest of gathering information that could lead to a bond vote on Town Meeting Day 2023.
Or next November when City Manager Bill Fraser noted there will be a general election.