Communities are constantly evolving. Change is the only constancy. The announcement that the Everett Mansion and the former Southern Vermont College campus is being sold to developers who propose to turn it into a destination resort continues the steady beat of good news for Bennington.
The hospital bought the 371 acres and buildings in a foreclosure sale. They raised $600,000 from the community to study the best use of the property. The hiking trails will be maintained for use by the community. The tax base will grow with for-profit ownership. One hundred fifty jobs will be created. An historic 1914 home in the style of an English country manor will be preserved and there will be new fruit trees planted to mimic the once-plentiful apple orchard on the property.
Tom Dee, president and CEO of Southwestern Vermont Health Care, the Select Board, the many citizens who donated toward the funding needed, and the purchaser, Alfred Weissman Real Estate, are all to be thanked profusely, and congratulated for brightening our future.
Much has and will be gained by the work and the foresight of several individuals and organizations. But let us not lose sight of what has also been lost. Southern Vermont College, the once-upon-a-time St. Joseph’s College, has been lost forever. There will be no more students earning college degrees there.
The college was bankrupt. It was not possible financially to save it and that is a tragedy. Recently both the new county sheriff and the chief of police have lamented the loss of the college that had a thriving program educating future police officers and sheriff deputies. Both local forces are now in need of officers, as are others in nearby communities, and what had been their major source of supply is gone.
Students came to Bennington to study at SVC. Some worked part-time jobs in the area. Many stayed and became productive members of the community. They married, had children, and some of their children studied at the college. Some became schoolboard members, served on a host of local not-for-profit boards, and joined local service clubs.
This story is not unique to Bennington. Colleges are closing all over the country. Vermont’s state college system has been consolidated to save money and their college libraries are going the way of long-play record albums. It has become fashionable in this time of inflated college tuition to question the very idea of a college education. There are jobs that pay $100,000 a year or more that do not require a college degree so who needs to read history or great 18th century novels? The very idea of the better educated one is, the better citizen one can become seems to have been lost. Too many of us are losing the curiosity that breeds the desire to continuing learning.
Recently an article in the New York Times asked: “What Happens to College Towns When Colleges Start to Shrink? With enrollment declining rural communities that depend on students try to adapt.” It means the loss of good-paying jobs in small towns where the industrial base is waning. Sound locally familiar? College enrollment is down 7.6 percent since 2010.
President Biden’s plan to help students drowning under the weight of college debt will almost certainly be struck down by the Supreme Court. That will prevent many from attending college. It will prevent others from pursuing advanced degrees. We will lose some potential physicians, scientists, social workers, history professors, etc.
Colleges breed new ideas and help create a synergy in a town that can lead to new affiliations, new partnerships and new businesses. I worked for a struggling theatre company that presented a couple of readings of plays in the then-largest room at Southern Vermont College. A few days later I was sitting in the office of the then-president of the college, a wise, thoughtful, and energetic Tom Gee. He got up from his desk and opened the door that led into the large room and beckoned me to follow him. We stood there just looking for a moment before Tom said, “Why don’t we turn this into a theatre?”
I was tempted to laugh, but damn, we really wanted a theatre space. So, I kept my mouth shut and listened.
“We could build some tier seating, rig up theatre lights, build some flats and voila!” he said.
We did, and we produced plays in that space until 1994 when we moved into the Art Center that Bruce Laumeister built.
Years later I taught a Film History class in that room and was delighted that more than half of my students were older than the typical college student. Some were pursing degrees, some were just interested in learning more about films. Some had moved to Bennington to attend SVC, others had lived here their whole lives. That was not an untypical SVC class. We have lost that fertile mix.
Thankfully we still have Bennington College. They have a growing enrollment and a different style of student. The mix of Bennington and SVC students made our community a more diverse and interesting one.
The new resort will be a boon to Bennington and the surrounding area. We should be thankful for new addition. But let’s also remember what we have lost.