Burlington residents came out en masse Tuesday night to advocate for the preservation of Memorial Auditorium.
More than 70 people filled City Hall for a public forum on the shuttered building, which organizers hope to see renovated. Many in attendance waxed nostalgic on concerts and events at the city's old community center.
Neighborhood planning assemblies from across Burlington organized the event after city officials expressed hesitance to move forward with a public dialogue, said Jim Holway, a New North End resident and chair of the organizing committee. "The community is saying we want to have a conversation," he said.
That message came loud and clear from attendees who want to keep Memorial publicly owned. "We can make Memorial Auditorium really special and useful, a gift to our next generation, and I'd like to see that happen," said James Lockridge, who has launched a campaign to restore the 242 Main teen center that once called the building home.
At the end of Tuesday's two-hour meeting, Genese Grill, a former member of the Coalition for a Livable City, introduced two measures meant as next steps. One would advise the city council and the mayor to "maintain Memorial Auditorium into perpetuity as a publicly owned community common" and to "empower an NPA-led decision-making process." After some discussion, the group easily passed both measures.
In anticipation of Tuesday's meeting, Mayor Miro Weinberger vowed during a city council meeting Monday to put discussion about the building's future "on the front burner." The Community and Economic Development Office has been swamped with other development projects, but would start a bidding process within the coming months, he said.
"As part of that process, the city will seriously explore a proposal that continues the historic use of the building as a publicly owned and operated assembly space," Weinberger said in statement issued Monday.
The mayor did not attend Tuesday's forum.
Tom Visser, director of the University of Vermont’s Historic Preservation Program, and Alan Abair, Memorial Auditorium's former property manager, launched the event with presentations on the history of the building, which has been plagued with maintenance concerns since the 1980s.
Two community groups initially proposed the forum, which was moderated by New North End resident Chris Trombly. Save Memorial Auditorium, a group that includes some members from the Coalition for a Livable City, had been advocating to preserve the historic building. Local music promoter and downtown resident Lockridge, meanwhile, had launched a petition and website called Save 242 Main to encourage the restoration of the teen center.*
Resident Carina Driscoll* recalled concerts she had attended as a kid, as well as other events at the historic building. "I'm concerned we don’t have a belief in what we can do ourselves," she said as she urged out-of-the-box thinking. "We’re lacking imagination as a community."
Other speakers suggested the space be used for cooking classes, a music incubator or even as a workshop where users could build wooden rowboats.
The event marked the first citywide NPA-led event, and Holway hopes for many more. Neighborhood planning assemblies should be, he said, "a space for democracy."
It didn't come easily this time around, he said. Event organizers had difficulty getting city support for the event. Even getting a tour of Memorial Auditorium proved difficult, according to Holway. "People really feel like there's the whole shrinking of the public voice," he said.
But attendees said they were encouraged by the gathering.
"This is something of a historic meeting," said Bea Bookchin, noting that citizens can accomplish anything in the city if they "connect with their own power."
"I hope tonight is the beginning of that," she said to applause.
*Correction, September 28, 2017: A previous version of this story misidentified where Lockridge lives.
*Correction, October 2, 2017: A previous version of this story contained a misspelling of Driscoll's first name.