Crumbling Auditorium Sparks Changes to ‘First Night’ Celebration

Vermont's largest New Year's Eve party will move some of its marquee shows out of a municipal space that's in disrepair

First Night Burlington, the largest New Year's Eve celebration in Vermont, will move some of its best-attended shows out of the city-owned Memorial Auditorium following concerns over the future of the crumbling municipal space.

"It was not a decision that was made lightly," said Tom Ayres of First Night Burlington, describing the decision to relocate two popular Circus Smirkus shows, which feature acrobats and other performances from the beloved Vermont youth troupe.

Decades of neglect and a leaky roof have taken their toll on Memorial Auditorium. The ceiling is in bad shape, supports have been weakened, and the balcony is now shut off because of a safety bar that has been deemed low to prevent falls. Broken steps, broken windows, and other concerns left Ayres fearing the space wouldn't be open to him when he needed it.

Ayres explained the decision to move the Circus Smirkus shows to the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts had to be made several weeks ago to allow for program schedules to be printed.

At the time, Ayres said roof repairs at the auditorium, which are now underway, and other uncertainties about the usefulness of the space had him worried that Memorial wouldn't be available to adequately host the First Night performances.

Ayres noted that the change to the Flynn Center, another historic building in downtown Burlington, meant one offering that had been planned for that space had to be bumped, and will likely be programmed next year instead. Still, Ayres called the value of First Night Burlington to consumers "excellent," noting there are more than 90 performances and activities scattered around downtown Burlington for people to enjoy.

"It is too bad," remarked Mayor Miro Weinberger, D-Burlington, of the decision to move Circus Smirkus out of the space that has become a favorite First Night spot for many families, including his.

However, Weinberger told necn the larger issue at play here is the question of how Burlington should best care for its aging public infrastructure. The city is now developing a 10-year capital plan for public infrastructure, Weinberger noted, adding that report should serve as a guidepost for maintenance and investment of public property like sidewalks and buildings.

The future of the auditorium will be put out for competitive proposals, Weinberger said. The basic questions he said he anticipates the city having to ask are: should Burlington spend millions to maintain the status quo of Memorial Auditorium? Millions more to modernize the building? Or sell the prime property outright?

"We're getting to a point where we have to make a decision about the future of the building," Weinberger said, noting that the First Night Burlington decision may actually serve as a helpful reminder to the city that action needs to be taken regarding the property.

Weinberger predicted the future of Memorial Auditorium will be among the prime issues facing him and the Burlington City Council in 2016. He said he would like to see historic elements of the building preserved, calling the structure “sacred,” since it honors service from members of the Burlington community during World War I.

"Do I hope that Memorial springs back to life again for us in future years? Yes I do," Ayres said, with some hesitance, because of pending research about the space and the results of a call for proposals. "But it remains to be seen what the state of the building is."

There are several events that have already been programmed in Memorial Auditorium, including the Burlington Winter Farmers' Market and Golden Gloves boxing matches. Those will continue, said Jesse Bridges, the director of the Burlington Parks, Recreation, and Waterfront Department.

Bridges explained future events in Memorial Auditorium are not being booked at this time, to both accommodate needed repairs and to prepare for eventual changes to the building. He described this phase of Memorial Auditorium's history as a "winding down," as the city plans what to do with the space in the future.

For more on First Night Burlington, including features on performers who will be entertaining the crowds and information on how to purchase admission buttons, visit this website.

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