hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues October 2020


Finding a new purpose

With colleges gone, plans for campuses raise hopes, doubts



The campus of Green Mountain College, seen here in its final semester of operation in 2019, was sold at auction in August to an entrepreneur who says he hopes to revive it as an agricultural work college. The campus is one of three in southwestern Vermont that are in the process of being converted to new uses. Joan K. Lentini file photo


Contributing writer


When three private colleges in southwestern Vermont decided to shut down for good in the spring of 2019, the news was a big blow to the region.

Southern Vermont College in Bennington, Green Mountain College in Poultney and the College of St. Joseph in Rutland all closed their doors. Their students transferred to other institutions to finish their degrees, and hundreds of faculty and staff lost their jobs.

In all three communities, picturesque campuses that had bustled with activity for decades went quiet for more than a year. The three colleges succumbed to financial pressures that were triggered in part by a steady decline in the population of college-age students in the region.
Now the focus is turning to how best to repurpose the former college campuses. In recent weeks, new owners or potential buyers have emerged for all three properties, and townspeople and local officials are monitoring and debating the potential benefits and risks as plans take shape for transforming the former colleges into something new.

In Rutland, under a deal announced last month, the College of St. Joseph would be subdivided, with a private developer turning much of the property into an assisted living complex. Pending voter approval in November, the city would buy the remainder of the property, including the college’s gym and athletic fields, for recreation.

In Poultney, an entrepreneur who bought the former Green Mountain College at auction in August says he hopes to redevelop the campus as an agricultural work college.

And in Bennington, the operator of a summer camp has offered to buy the former Southern Vermont College campus, though the disposition of the property is subject to court approval in a federal bankruptcy proceeding.



The Everett Mansion was the centerpiece of Southern Vermont College before it closed in the spring of 2019. Now a bankruptcy court is overseeing disposition of the former college’s campus. Photo by Joan K. Lentini


Summer camp moves in
Southern Vermont College’s 371-acre campus overlooks Bennington from the slopes of Mount Anthony. The center of the campus is the Everett Mansion, a stone castle built in 1911 by local businessman Edward Everett, who also helped to found the Bennington Museum.

The town’s 2020 preliminary grand list values the campus at just over $9 million. Community Bank is the college’s biggest creditor, holding a $5.5 million mortgage.

Last year, the Oliverian School, a private high school in New Hampshire, offered the former college’s board of trustees $4.9 million for the property. But it backed out after taking a closer look at the property’s maintenance costs, especially for the mansion.

In June, the trustees filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 7 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, which could lead to an auction of the campus and its assets to satisfy creditors. The case was put on hold less than a week later when the court-appointed trustee, Raymond Obuchowski, learned that the college trustees had leased the property to a summer camp.

The operator of the camp, Moshe Perlstein, a New Jersey rabbi, also made an offer to buy. The Bennington Banner reported that his bid was just over $3 million for part of the campus.

Perlstein’s camp brought in hundreds of Orthodox Jewish children and staff from New Jersey and metropolitan New York City for two three-week sessions this summer. The camp sessions were the focus of some controversy, with neighbors making repeated complaints about noise and questioning whether the sessions posed a risk of Covid-19 transmission. Some also reported that access to public trails on the campus had been blocked.

The town took the camp operators to court over the noise complaints, and a judge fined the camp’s operators $1,600. He rejected the town’s request to shut down the camp, however. State officials said the camp appeared to be complying with coronavirus safety protocols.

Townspeople have questioned Perlstein’s intentions in bidding on the property, noting that the revenue from a six-week summer camp by itself would hardly justify spending $3 million for the campus.

Some have urged the town Select Board to look into buying the property. They say the town would be better off buying the campus and its athletic facilities than spending roughly the same amount to expand the town’s existing recreation center.


Bankruptcy court in control
In late August, with the camps over, the Southern Vermont College bankruptcy case resumed, and Obuchowski, a bankruptcy lawyer from Bethel, Vt., stepped in again as trustee. In an interview, he suggested the property could be sold without the need for an auction.

“We are working toward putting together a contract for a potential buyer,” Obuchowski said. “It could be Perlstein, his corporation, or another buyer. The original contract is still out there, but events have warranted changes, leaving the proceedings open to whichever contract we can move on first.”

Obuchowski said in late September that he planned to bring a contract to the court “in the next few weeks.”

He said the college’s holdings have three components: the main campus, the gatehouse and gate at the bottom of the college’s access road, and the Laumeister Art Center, which was gifted to the college in 2017.

The court wants to dispose of the main campus before winter sets in, Obuchowski said. The other two properties are involved in litigation and will take longer to settle.

The goal of a Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceeding is to liquidate the college’s assets and distribute the proceeds to creditors. The college trustees “can voice their desires and concerns, but they are not in control of the process,” he said.

Town Manager Stuart Hurd said Bennington does not expect to bid on the property.
“Given that there is in place a purchase and sales agreement, the town will not consider attempting to purchase the property,” Hurd said.

Asked whether the town might lease the college’s athletic facilities, as the city of Rutland did at the former College of St. Joseph, Hurd called it “an interesting proposal but one on which I would not speculate.”

If a new owner was open to town use of the fields and gym, “that would be great,” he added.
The property remains tax-exempt for now, Hurd said. If a new use doesn’t qualify for a tax exemption, the property would be placed on the local tax rolls based on its purchase price, he said.

“The best outcome is to see the property returned to productive use including the necessary maintenance of the mansion,” Hurd said. “It is a beautiful property. Having it used and maintained is the best outcome for Bennington.”


Protecting forests, recreation
Bill Colvin, the assistant director of the Bennington County Regional Commission, said the most plausible reuses for the Southern Vermont College property would be for education, a private or corporate retreat center, or a recreation center.

“From an economic development perspective, the SVC campus has been and could once again be a significant driver of economic activity in the region,” Colvin said. “Depending upon the business plan and the underlying financial strength of the owner/operator, any of those types of uses could be very beneficial.”

Some of the campus could also be developed for housing, he added.

“We are seeing a fair amount of regional real estate activity as a result of the pandemic, but it remains unclear what kind of staying power that demand will yield,” Colvin said.

The Vermont Land Trust holds a conservation easement on 215 forested acres of the college property. The easement prevents development and forest fragmentation, requires the landowner to allow public use of the land for nonmotorized recreation, and gives the trust the first option to buy if the property comes on the market.

Donald Campbell, the land trust’s regional director for southern Vermont, said the conserved land starts just above the campus and runs almost to the summit of Mount Anthony.
“We very rarely own land,” Campbell said. “We already have those acres conserved and public access secured.”

Would the trust make an offer?

“I can’t give a straight answer until we know what our options are,” he said.
Part of the campus is a National Register of Historic Places historic district. The district covers the mansion, other original buildings and part of the grounds. The designation offers almost no protection, however.

The Preservation Trust of Vermont owns an easement on the mansion’s facade, preventing inappropriate changes and obligating the building’s owner to maintain it, Campbell said.
“The big head-scratcher is what happens to the mansion,” Campbell said. “The historic house is amazing and a huge responsibility.”

Its high maintenance costs complicate prospects for a sale, he said.


In Poultney, a new owner
Until it closed, Green Mountain College was the largest employer in Poultney. Local businesses have felt its loss keenly.

In August, Raj Peter Bhakta of Shoreham, Vt., bought the 155-acre property at auction for $4.55 million plus fees – far below the original asking price of $20 million.

Bhakta told Vermont radio and television outlets that he plans to create a “work college,” where students will learn about and practice sustainable agriculture and gain entrepreneurial skills. A pilot class of 30 to 50 students would start in the spring, and, if all goes well, graduate with no debt.

Bhakta, a former investment banker in New York City, has started several businesses. He converted a former dairy farm in Shoreham to a rye farm and whiskey distillery. He also blends and bottles brandy at an estate in France and raises cattle on a ranch in Florida. He also mounted an unsuccessful bid for a Pennsylvania congressional seat in 2006.

Efforts to set up an interview with Bhakta in September weren’t successful in time for this issue’s publication deadline. But after buying the Green Mountain campus in August, he told Vermont Public Radio that the challenge for local agriculture isn’t in producing products but in marketing them. He contended his entrepreneurial experience would bring expertise to the college.

Bhakta’s business record is mixed, however. He was forced off the board of Whistle Pig Whiskey, the distillery he founded, over allegations that he spent millions in company money without the board’s approval. (According to its website, Whistle Pig still operates the distillery on Bhakta’s Shoreham farm, which also supplies grain and oak wood for the barrels.) He has no background in higher education administration.

The concept of a work college is not new. There are nine federally recognized and supervised work colleges in the United States. It’s also not impossible for students to graduate debt-free. Berea College in Kentucky, one of the nine work colleges, has a full tuition scholarship policy. New York City’s Cooper Union was tuition-free from 1902 until 2014.


‘Herculean task’
The only work college in the Northeast now is Sterling College, in northern Vermont town of Craftsbury. The college, with 125 students, focuses on ecological thinking, action and careers, including in sustainable agriculture.

Matthew Derr, the president of Sterling College, suggested Bhakta faces a daunting challenge in creating such an institution from scratch.

“It’s a herculean and expensive task,” Derr said. “There are high standards, and rightly so. Students are consumers, and we need to protect them.”

Derr is one of the commissioners on the New England Commission of Higher Education, which accredits colleges in the region. Achieving accreditation takes at least five years and one four-year graduating class, he said. Among other requirements, schools must demonstrate financial stability -- the factor that brought down Green Mountain, Southern Vermont, and St. Joseph.
The federal regulations for work colleges impose their own standards. At a work college, all students must live on campus, take classes, and participate in running the college. So at Sterling, students work on the college farm, in the dining hall and offices and on maintenance crews, Derr said. Community service is required.

“It reduces the college’s cost of operating and helps students with the cost of their education,” Derr said.

Graduating debt-free “is hugely important,” he added. Without debt, students can go to work on the issues that are the focus of their education, rather than taking jobs just to pay off their debts.
“Colleges have to change their business model to make this possible,” Derr said. “There’s a significant need for reinvention, creativity, and innovation in higher education.”

Derr also questioned the notion that the world of higher education lacks entrepreneurial minds.
“If you look at the boards of trustees of colleges doing interesting and innovative work, you find many entrepreneurs,” Derr said. “There’s plenty of enterprising, creative thinking in higher education. Education as an enterprise is really important to develop the just food system we need, but it won’t be just higher education that does it.”

Ed Bove, executive director of the Rutland Regional Planning Commission, said that because of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s difficult to gauge the specific economic impact of Green Mountain College’s closing. The scanty details so far about Bhakta’s plans make predicting their possible benefits equally challenging, he said.

Agriculture-focused education with the college’s small farm “would be a good reuse” of the college property, Bove said. “The industry has a future in the area.”

The slate industry and agriculture are local economic drivers, enjoy local support, and are “in demand,” he said. With New York and its farms just to the west, there would be opportunities to integrate agriculture in both states, he said.

Bhakta, who has several operating businesses in his portfolio, “is obviously doing stuff and has resources,” Bove said.


From college to elder care
At the former College of St. Joseph in Rutland, Heartland Communities of America, a developer based in Florida, reached a deal last month to buy most of the campus.

Under the deal with Heritage Family Credit Union, which holds the mortgage on the campus, Heartland would acquire 109 of the 129 acres, demolish most of the buildings, and construct a 175-unit assisted living facility. The project, estimated to cost about $50 million, is expected to create 80 full-time jobs. A purchase price hasn’t been disclosed.

Rutland voters will decide in November whether to have the city buy the remaining 20 acres, including the former college’s gym, ballfields, and a parking lot, for $1.45 million.
Rutland Mayor David Allaire said the gym, which the city began leasing last November, could serve as a community center.

“We had hundreds, maybe thousands of people use the gym, meeting rooms and the handball court,” he said.

The local high school held its varsity basketball games there after the school’s gym was vandalized.

“I’m really excited about the prospect of the assisted living facility,” Allaire said. “It would bring the whole property to life.”

Matt Levandowski, the chief executive of Heritage Family Credit Union, said the two projects will complement one another.

“Both the senior care facility and community center will reinvigorate the area,” Levandowski said. “The area needs a community center. It can bring events that used to go to Burlington, Bennington or Brattleboro. The seniors and students can use it.”

Allaire said the campus went on the tax rolls in July when the credit union took possession of it. If voters approve the city purchase of the athletic facilities, that portion will go off the tax rolls, but the assisted living facility will be taxable, he said.

Bove, of the Rutland Regional Planning Commission, said the commission’s brownfields team is conducting an environmental assessment of the College of St. Joseph campus for the developer.
“We couldn’t ask for a better reuse” of the property, he said, though he added that the city may have to make some adjustments to its zoning to accommodate an assisted living center at the site.

With tax revenue coming from the development, plus new permanent residents and new jobs at the site, the assisted living center could be better economically for the city than the college was, he said.

The campus also sits on one section of a planned recreation trail, he added. The Rutland Creek Path will run through the city and connect with Otter Creek.
“The future looks decent,” Bove said.