The "Winooski Dome" apparently is more than just a lot of hot air. Many residents of this community of 7,309 near Lake Champlain in northern Vermont are skeptical of the plan to enclose their town in a giant 880-acre dome. But a research project, an international symposium, the endorsement of a world-renowned dome designer, and pending federal funds are keeping the idea alive.
All the commotion started last fall when Winooski city planners were thinking hard about how to handle the town's soaring heating costs. Someone mentioned "putting a lid" on the city.
The idea, the planners decided, had its merits. Townspeople could walk down Allen Street, past McGregor's Pharmacy, the post office, and the new Vermont Bank, and end up at the Municipal Building -- all without worrying about snow on the winter sidewalk or wearing a heavy coat. Looking up a hill, they would see the twin spires of St. Francis Xavier Church poking toward the top of the dome.
The day after the idea was offered, town planner Mark Tigan decided to call the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) down in Washington about it. HUD apparently liked the idea -- it it encouraged the city planners to pursue it.
Then the questions and problems began to arise.
"At this point, we are just asking the questions," says Brendan Keleher, deputy director of community devel opment in Winooski. "We have found it is structurally possible. We have a $55,000 request submitted to HUD. They didn't think we were asking for enough research money.
"We talked to engineers of solar technology. The dome would probably have to be a passive solar collector."
Professionals around the country got in touch with Winooski when they heard about the domed city concept. R. Buckminster Fuller, the inventor, philosopher, and designer of the geodesic dome, flew up from Brazil to address an International Dome Symposium put on a few weeks ago by the town.
Mr. Fuller applauded the city for investigating the concept, told them it was possible, and offered his idea of several geodesic domes instead of one big covering.
On the first day of the symposium, New Mexico got into the act by asking Winooski to do a joint research project emphasizing the different needs a dome could fulfill.
Asking for HUD help is nothing new to Winooski. The 1.3-square mile town near the Canadian border is undergoing a rebirth after plugging into HUD's Urban Development Action Grant, and getting other funds available to economically depressed towns.
Even though construction of a dome is several years away at the earliest, residents already have conflicting views about the idea. Proponents have formed the Golden Onion Dome Club to support it (Winooski is an Indian word meaning "wild onion").
But opponents have raised several questions, including the possible pollution problem that might arise from cooking fumes, auto emissions, and fires.
"What about nature? You can't interrupt nature like that," says one senior citizen. "None of the birds would want to go south, and think of the pollution they would leave."
One restaurateur thinks the whole idea is a "farce," but may be good for business.
"The research money might give one guy a job," says Hank Tetreault, co-owner of Winooski Restaurant."Maybe he will eat here." Mr. Tetreault doesn't think the dome idea will get any farther than a research project.
"It is a little far-fetched," says a restaurant patron, eating a 90-cent cheeseburger that would put a franchise burger to shame. "If they could do it, it would be great. Some of the finest architects say it can be done. The town fathers would love it -- all that construction and the money that would come in. It would bring in tourists, too."
A taxi driver from nearby Burlington wonders about cars. "What would the cars do? Would they have to open a big door?"
But thirteen-year-old Todd Brunelle likes the idea. "It would be great," he says. "No winter."