What does the future hold for Burlington's Memorial Auditorium?

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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) It is a multimillion-dollar problem sitting in downtown Burlington. Memorial Auditorium is closed and it is decaying. What it's future should be recently became an issue in the mayor's race. Now, Mayor Miro Weinberger, D-Burlington, tells WCAX News his idea for the 1928 building has evolved.

"It's a big space, it's a big space," said Mayor Weinberger, as he walked through Memorial Auditorium. At 55,000 square-feet, the auditorium is big, creating a sturdy gateway to downtown Burlington. "The whole building is a memorial," Weinberger said.

Plaques in the lobby honor the Burlington residents who served in World War I. A star next to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. Mayor Weinberger says despite that solemn history, the plaques were not always here.

Mayor Miro Weinberger: Some of them were kind of -- they were lost in the basement.
Reporter Kristin Kelly: Oh my gosh.
Mayor Miro Weinberger: We were able to get them back up.

Auditoriums like this were built across the country to honor World War I vets. Burlington residents haven't been allowed to use this public building for about two years. It's falling apart. Corroded metal supports lurk inside the exterior walls. Water damage from a failing roof is easy to find. There's a constant pool of standing water in the basement. The boilers date to 1958. And keeping the boilers going requires daily attention.

The city is spending $45,000 a year just to keep the building closed. It was losing $200,000 a year when it was still open and staffed for hosting public events. The city spent $250,000 a couple of years ago on replacing the roof and other emergency repairs. The debate now -- what's next?

"I think we need a public assembly space in the downtown," Weinberger said. The Mayor put out his plan to create a plan in September. A statement about wanting to restore the building and creating a competitive bidding process. He said one of the options competing would be a city-owned and run Memorial Auditorium. Now the Mayor says he no longer wants private sector bids. He says the city can save time by pursuing its own restoration.

"A plan to modernize Memorial Auditorium -- make it a 21st century public assembly, public event space -- publicly-owned by the city," Weinberger said. "I'm looking forward to working on that plan and having that conversation with the council and the public."

Why scrap the private sector just weeks after saying you want to invite bids? He says this summer it became clear the re-development of the Moran Plant -- which included a possible public assembly space -- was not happening. And just last month the city passed new zoning rules for the downtown.

But something else happened, too. Independent Carina Driscoll launched her campaign to unseat the mayor. And she made public ownership of city assets and the future of Memorial Auditorium campaign issues. "Pieces are falling off the outside of the building and it's the first thing you see when you come down the hill on Main Street," said Driscoll during her campaign kickoff Thursday.

Reporter Kristin Kelly: Now some of your critics may look at this, and your evolved position, and say, 'Well, isn't that interesting -- given that Carina Driscoll jumped into the race and made Memorial an issue in the race.' What do you say to those people?
Mayor Miro Weinberger: I guess what I'd say to them is what I said to you -- we've been moving toward this position for some time. We couldn't make this decision until the decision was made about new Moran late last summer, and until it was clear what the zoning was going to be for this area.

Weinberger says his vision for the building is an improved Memorial Auditorium -- better acoustics, more energy efficient, and with the same historic façade. No condos, no retail -- just a refreshed piece of Burlington's past.

A big factor will be the cost. Weinberger says the planning so far indicates it could be around $10 million. He hopes to have a plan and all the financing before the city council and the voters next fall.