What will Burlington do with deteriorating Memorial Auditorium?

Published: May. 24, 2022 at 6:15 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Burlington taxpayers have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on an empty Memorial Auditorium over the past five and half years. Now, there’s a plan to spend more to stabilize the building.

City councilors are supporting saving the historic and decaying structure and using a $1 million bond voters already approved to do it.

Memorial Auditorium’s doors have been shuttered since 2016 and taxpayers have spent $55,000 every year since on insurance, utilities and maintenance. All that, plus that $1 million bond to secure the structure is just the start. Once that work is done, it could cost more than $40 million to actually renovate Memorial Auditorium.

Memorial Auditorium opened in 1927 and was the site of many big-name acts, such as Bob Dylan and Simon and Garfunkel.

But in 2016 it was deemed unsafe, so the doors were closed until the city figured out what to do with it.

Now, six years later, the building is likely headed for stabilization, using up to $1 million of voter-approved bond money.

“We are planning for the stabilization and security of the building and the investments needed to ensure we can use it in the future. We have to preserve what we have so we have options down the road. Otherwise, if we don’t make those investments, our options get very limited,” said Brian Pine, the director of Burlington’s Community & Economic Development Office.

Those options down the road are many. Some, like James Lockridge, the head of Big Heavy World, want to see it restored to be a place where the community can gather, have concerts and bring back space for teens.

“It’s one of those things that we have to step up to be more creative, apply ourselves, be visionary, be aspirational. This is an opportunity for that and I challenge the mayor and city councilors to face that,” Lockridge said.

With the coming Burlington High School bond which could be upward of $180 million, the city’s debt limit will be completely spent. So it would be some time before the city could ask for another bond.

“Personally, I’d be more interested in rather than going to a bond vote on Memorial, exploring alternative funding resources on that either for philanthropy or grants or other state and federal partners,” said Ben Traverse, D-Burlington City Council.

With hefty tax reappraisals for some, plus other expenses coming down the line, residents we spoke with aren’t interested in paying any more for Memorial than they already have.

“I’m retired, my husband’s retired, I have to pay for the high school, so I would like to see some kind of public-private partnership so that my taxes aren’t going to pay for a renovation that’s going to be used by everybody in the greater Burlington area,” said Maddy Posig of Burlington.

Prices for the potential renovation skyrocketed since the city last looked into them back in 2018. At that time, they said it would cost $30 million to renovate, but now with inflation and high construction costs, that number will be at $45 million.

Though the City Council showed broad support for the building, one local resident says she wants to see something brand new, like affordable housing.

“I feel that it should be taken down. I feel that it’s past its time and this is the gateway to the city of Burlington and I feel that it could be used in a better use,” said Steph Holdridge of Burlington.

Traverse says maybe there’s a potential for mixed-use at the site in the future. But we are still at the very beginning phases of what this could look like.

The first stop will be stabilizing the building, making sure no more water damage occurs and replacing the heating system to keep the building protected until a future plan is hatched.

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