BURLINGTON Do Burlingtonians want a rock- and ice-climbing wall on the waterfront, or more public gardens, picnic tables and park benches? Would they prefer a new children's museum, sailing center, outdoor ice rink and public café, or unobstructed views of the lake on undeveloped parkland? In short, will Queen City residents give the now-defunct Moran Plant a second lease on life, or vote to tear it down and start anew?
On Tuesday, March 4, voters will be asked to decide the fate of the 54-year-old brick edifice that has been empty since it was decommissioned in 1986. After a year of planning, information-gathering sessions and feasibility studies, the city will ask voters to approve a $21 million proposal to rehab the old electric plant into a year-round, multi-use, "green" recreation center. Mayor Bob Kiss says the "Moran Center at the Waterfront Park" would benefit a broad cross-section of citizens and generate millions annually in revenues and ancillary economic activity for the city.
But a second, advisory measure just approved for the ballot proposes demolishing the five-story structure and returning the land to a more natural state. This nonbinding measure, introduced by a new citizens group called the Green Democratic Alliance, will ask voters to support the "smart demolition," or controlled dismantlement, of the vacant plant. The group contends that smart demolition would be far less expensive than the city's proposal, and that the Moran Plant could be put to better use if its materials were reused and recycled.
Owen Mulligan is a member of the Green Democratic Alliance, which gathered 1340 signatures to put the demolition measure on the ballot. Mulligan says his group's primary objection to the mayor's plan is the cost, about $7.3 million of which would be borne by the city. "We know that people are already strapped in Burlington and being taxed out of their homes," he argues. "Any increase in property taxes we don't see as a good sign, and that possibility does exist [with the mayor's plan]."
But Kiss, who's invested considerable time and effort in putting together an eco-friendly proposal with a broad range of uses, says those concerns are unwarranted. "It's a significant public asset that will serve the community, families, children and youth," Kiss says. "We have a resource that can serve Burlington well, and it makes sense that we use it. Proposing to knock down that asset without regard for all its potential benefits doesn't make sense to me."
The mayor's proposal includes three tenants at the Center: the Green Mountain Children's Museum, Ice Factor and the Lake Champlain Community Sailing Center. Although the facility would continue to be owned by the city and managed by Burlington Parks and Recreation, the tenants would bear the cost for maintenance and upkeep. Moreover, Kiss dismisses the suggestion that the $21 million price tag would increase property taxes, arguing that any such plan would first require voter approval.
If the rec center gets the voters' thumbs-up, Kiss estimates it would generate about $2 million annually onsite, as well as a $6 million "ripple effect" in the local economy. He notes that in the Green Mountains, White Mountains and Adirondacks, there are about 80,000 people who ice- and rock-climb.
Speaking of rocks, Mulligan is also concerned about the fate of the "Stonehenge-like" granite sculpture on the north side of the plant. Kiss counters "it would be insensitive" not to move that artwork to another location in the city.