Last week I attended a great event in downtown Middlebury, just yards from where the recent train derailment brought the town front and center on CNN—until the California fires raged and caught the public’s attention and great concern.
The event was the groundbreaking for the last phase of the Town Hall Theater project, a project that, when complete, will provide the town with a remarkable theater and public space in a building that was constructed in 1883 at the juncture of Merchants Row and Cross Street. The decade-long project, led so ably and enthusiastically by Doug Anderson, and supported by many in the local community, is critically important to our small town. It will provide a home for local theater, for a wide range of productions, for student groups to perform in town, and to strengthen the town’s civic culture.
The College supported this project early on, and weeks ago agreed to provide $1 million in additional support to allow for the final phase of the project to move forward, and for the theater to open by this coming June or July. Our support is in the form of a partnership. College students, faculty, and staff will be able to use Town Hall Theater facilities, students will obtain internship opportunities at the Theater, our Language Schools, so short on performance space on campus, will have use of the facilities for parts of the summer, and the Theater’s presence will have a positive economic impact on the town. Just as the town’s and College’s histories are so intertwined, so, too, are their futures, and I believe it is in the College’s best interest to contribute to the town’s vitality through this project.
Though the presence of Middlebury students in the local community, not to mention faculty and staff, is already quite significant, this project will diversity the kind of interaction our students have with the town. So many students now volunteer in the county across a wide range of volunteer programs or through “service learning” segments of their courses. Our Alliance for Civic Engagement (“ACE”), a vital hub of activity in McCullough Hall led so energetically by Tiffany Sargent, provides a remarkable array of opportunities for students to “do good” in the local community. In addition, a great number of our varsity athletes, encouraged by their coaches, mentor students in local elementary and secondary schools throughout Addison County.
Townspeople who work with our students and/or are the recipients of their volunteerism recognize and appreciate the strength and power of town/gown relations, but many, unfortunately, do not. Through the Town Hall Theater project, plus other collaborative projects we will develop with partners in town, the benefits of town and gown working together will be both enjoyed and recognized by a greater number within the Addison County community.
Perhaps most importantly, the Town Hall Theater and its anticipated full slate of performances will bring townspeople within Middlebury together on a noticeable and significant scale. Our town is not immune to the trends seen in many small, rural towns, which include the weakening of civic culture. The sentiment that “the College should stay up on the hill,” something one can still hear at Town meeting and in other public venues, must give way to a spirit of collaboration and mutual appreciation. I believe the Town Hall Theater project embodies this kind of spirit and it is overdue.