Burlington’s plan to renovate the ailing Memorial Auditorium has been put on hold, at least until the economy rebounds from the effects of Covid-19.
The auditorium at 250 Main St. has sat empty since 2016, when it was ruled structurally unsound. Since then, the city has been thinking through how to renovate the 2,600-person auditorium and civic center, and who would do it.
In February — just before the pandemic hit — it was announced that the leaders behind Higher Ground, a South Burlington club, were interested in operating the space once it was renovated.
But then, Covid-19 hit, and plans for the auditorium fell apart.
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said in an interview with VTDigger that he doesn’t expect any construction work on the auditorium until at least spring 2022, and that’s only if the economy rebounds and Burlington residents support a tax increase to fund the project — estimated at $25 million to $30 million — while many are struggling to make ends meet.
“2020 was supposed to be the year that Memorial Auditorium sort of moved to the front burner,” Weinberger said. “When the pandemic hit, a number of things very quickly made it clear that it was not going to be possible to keep that timeline.”
And now money’s tight. Weinberger expects city revenues this fiscal year to fall more than 10% below expectations, and it’s uncertain if the city will see another federal Covid-19 stimulus package anytime soon — both reasons for postponing the project.
Burlington’s Community and Economic Development Office had been assigned to organize the Memorial Auditorium project, but since the pandemic hit, that office has shifted to relief efforts for city residents. Weinberger said that’s the priority now, not the auditorium.
The city had planned to ask voters Nov. 3 to approve a tax increase for the auditorium, Weinberger said, but now’s not the time. Conditions are far different from 2018, when 2,600 people responded to a survey about remodeling the auditorium, and 84% said they supported renovation and 73% said they supported tax hikes to do so.
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Other tax increases that voters approved in March, before the impacts of the pandemic were fully realized, have not been implemented either, Weinberger said; they would have supported public safety and affordable housing initiatives.
“It seems wrong to me to be increasing taxes at a time when so many Burlingtonians are suffering financially,” Weinberger said.
‘In light of all the uncertainties …’
Alan Newman, co-owner of Higher Ground, said he thinks the mayor is making the right choice to forgo progress on Memorial Auditorium until the pandemic has passed.
He said the city has more urgent projects to focus on right now — most notably to Newman, the problems at Burlington High School, which was closed indefinitely this fall after high levels of PCB chemicals were found in some parts of the building and in the soil beneath it. At the very least, the city will need to move students to a new location, or build a new high school entirely.
Newman said he and his Higher Ground business partner, Alex Crothers, have always seen potential in renovating the auditorium. “Alex and I both have a soft spot for Memorial and to see it come back and be a real, valuable asset to the community,” Newman said.
Will he still be interested in operating the auditorium two to three years down the road if the project moves forward? “If I’m still alive,” Newman joked. He said he’s nearing 80, and by the time the renovation is completed, he said he might not be able to take on that responsibility.
City Council President Max Tracy, P-Ward 2, said he also agrees with the mayor’s plan to postpone the Memorial Auditorium renovations.
“That project would make an already challenging budget more untenable,” Tracy said. “In light of all the uncertainties, it does make sense to hold off on another big-ticket project for the time being.”
Burlington architectural firm Freeman French Freeman constructed a mock-up of what a renovated Memorial Auditorium could look like as a part of a mid-pandemic exercise to reimagine parts of Burlington when so much has been put on hold.
Weinberger said the mock-up was exciting to see, but he made clear that it wasn’t commissioned by the city. He also pointed out the modernized Freeman French Freeman auditorium vision, complete with glass and steel structural accents, might not vibe with the historical preservation responsibilities the city may have to abide by when renovating the 1928 war memorial building.
“It’s not clear to me that those would be consistent with a historic preservation program,” Weinberger joked.
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