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Monday, May 16, 2022

Town Hall Relocation Project Returns to Where It Started

Author: Anne DeWitt Local News Editor

On Tuesday, Oct. 23 John Tenny, chair of the Middlebury Select Board, informed the board that the Middlebury Town Hall will remain in its current location at the convergence of South Main Street and College Street.

When the plan of constructing a new building next to Ilsey Public Library, on the site currently occupied by Steele's Garage and the Osborne house, fell through last March, the town returned to Middlebury College's offer, made three years ago, to have the municipal offices relocate into Twilight Hall.

The College also offered the old Courthouse at that point. After three years, the Twilight offer no longer stands. President John McCardell said in an e-mail that in the interim the College had developed a buildings blueprint that involved Twilight. "We began our long-term facilities planning assuming that both buildings would be part of the College for the long-term."

He added, "It now appears that the town has returned to the current site as the best available site. I regret that, both as president and citizen."

Tenny likewise expressed regret. "Coming to this end after everybody working so hard for so long is a great disappointment to the board and a great disappointment to me."

A Building with Problems

The present Town Hall houses the municipal government offices on the first floor and the Middlebury Police Department in the basement. This presents a plethora of problems. The roof leaks, the basement floods, the heating system works too well and the air circulation system not well enough. The Police Department does not have its own bathroom, which means that detainees have to be brought upstairs to use the municipal facilities, an undesirable situation in terms of convenience and safety.

"This is the burned out stump of Middlebury High School," said Town Planner Fred Dunnington. The building in which the town hall resides was constructed as a school in 1911 and was two stories higher than the present structure. After the top two floors burned in a 1950s fire, the town opted to preserve the remaining, intact structure and ultimately turned it into the home of the municipal offices.

"[The building that houses the Police Department] deserves to be made more effective, to serve the public better—and to look better," said Dunnington.

The Search for Alternatives

A movement to relocate the Town Hall began in the mid-1990s. A process of public hearings and forums produced a list of recommendations for the new Town Hall: that it remain downtown, that it be adjacent to a green space, in the tradition of New England town halls and that it relocate in the same general vicinity for reasons of parking and accessibility.

The Twilight Hall offer from the College was initially turned down because of the building's inability to accommodate the Police Department. Since that time, however, this constraint has mostly vanished thanks to plans to move the Police Department to a new location on Exchange Street. They would share this building with the state police force, currently located on Route 7 South.

The College's informal offer of Twilight Hall three years ago was part of a larger project of the College's: to acquire the land upon the Town Hall's removal to a new location and to establish a park in place of the current structure. In order to further this development, the College offered $3 million to help with construction of a new Town Hall on a different site.

President McCardell described the College's proposal in an e-mail "We will amortize up to $3 million in bonded indebtedness to help cover the cost of a new Town Hall on any site other than the present site if the town would turn over the current building to the College. We would raze that building and create a park."

Despite recent developments, "the College offer remains what it has always been," he said.

The town considered a number of possible locations in addition to Twilight Hall and the old courthouse, including the Maple Manor property at the intersection of Route 7 and Creek Road. No location proved ideal.

The site currently occupied by Steele's Garage and the Osborne house seemed for a time like the best option. However, the town's exploration of this possibility stalled when Exxon's acquisition of Mobil left the property in limbo for a year.

When Steele's finally obtained the gas station, they were unwilling to sell for the amount that the town offered to pay. Finally, in March 2001 the town voters elected not to abandon pursuit of the Steele's site and instead continue to use the current location.

What Happens Now?

For now, efforts will focus on the renovation of the existing building. According to Tenny, the first step is the Police Station. The town is waiting for the final designs and estimates on the Exchange Street building.

The next step will be to turn to the process of redesigning and reconstructing the existing structure. Tenny observes that some of the current difficulties arise from poor timing, citing the sluggish economy, the downward trend of which worsened after Sept. 11. "I think the College is retrenching a little bit, and as a town we're retrenching a little bit," he said.

He remains optimistic, however. "We'll be able to do something in the future."