Board urged to seek purchase of SVC campus
BENNINGTON — A half-dozen callers urged the Select Board Monday to "move forward" on a rapidly accelerating proposal calling for the town to purchase the former Southern Vermont College campus.
The callers to the videoconference meeting represented only a handful of the more than 120 residents now expressing support for the idea, said Jackie Kelly, who had sent a letter to the Banner signed by multiple residents.
She told Select Board Chairman Donald Campbell that the group, many of whom are lifelong residents and prominent members of the community, is ready to help the board if it seeks to purchase the 371-acre campus.
"When you need help from us, call out," she said.
Other callers stressed what they see as the potential of the campus, the buildings including the historic Everett Mansion and a sports center, and the athletic fields to helping to make Bennington an attractive destination for visitors.
"I really believe this is a perfect opportunity for the community and the town" to covert the former campus into a community asset, said Dr. Peter Geannelis, owner of Mount Anthony Veterinary Hospital.
Geannelis said he had been in touch with members of the former SVC board of trustees and others and found support for a purchase with community involvement.
Campbell said the board is closely following the situation but currently "can't talk about it," per advice of town counsel, because of a sale agreement for the campus and other legal considerations.
The legal situation "is complicated," and "a delicate situation," he said, prompting the board to decline comment at this time.
Campbell said the board "is pretty much hamstrung about what we can say in response" to the residents.
The campus property apparently is still under a purchase agreement with the operator of a youth camp for Orthodox Jewish teens from the New Jersey-New York City area, which now is leasing the campus through the summer.
The director, Moshe Perlstein, and the former SVC trustees have confirmed they concluded a lease and purchase agreement for the campus in June.
The unconfirmed price is said to be just over $3 million.
Another complication developed after the SVC board voted to dissolve on July 1 and voluntarily place the college real estate and other assets into the Chapter 7 bankruptcy process, likely leading to a dissolution of assets and an auction.
However, that proceeding was dismissed a week later, after the court-appointed bankruptcy trustee said he could not continue while a youth camp was in progress, which could expose the campus estate to liabilities.
It is expected the college will refile for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in U.S. Bankruptcy Court-Vermont Division when the camps are completed.
The situation is further complicated by the fact the town has taken the camp, called Camp Southern Vermont, LLC, to court over multiple and repeated noise complaints to police from neighbors of the campus since the first session began July 5.
On Friday, a Superior Court judge fined the camp $1,600 over the noise issues but denied a request by the town to shut down the camp and force the campers to vacate the property.
Perlstein reiterated Friday that he still wants to purchase the campus for annual camp programs and he is determined to solve the noise issues prompting complaints from the surrounding neighborhood.
Some of the residents who called Monday said town ownership of the property could help lead an economic resurgence in Bennington.
The campus is a site with "endless possibilities," said caller Donny Wassick, owner of Wassick Tire Inc.
He said the property as a town asset "would put us on the map," and termed the proposed purchase one "of the most important issues of my lifetime."
State Rep. Mary Morrissey, R-Bennington, said one of the most often cited messages from community development officials is that "a community must be willing to invest in itself," and the recent letter on this proposal from residents is a "loud and clear" message to the town.
Monique Geannelis said development of the campus property would be "complimentary to the Putnam Block," meaning the ongoing $54 million redevelopment of a four-acre site at the Four Corners intersection in the downtown — also involving investment from many local businesses, institutions and individuals.
Nancy White, who was one of the residents who first talked about purchasing the campus during talks about a proposed 1 percent local option tax earlier this year, said developing the property could help boost the local economy.
She called for a public meeting to fully discuss the proposal.
While the local option tax plan put forth by the Select Board was soundly defeated at the annual town meeting, some opponents, including Mike Bethel, said they would consider adding the local tax on sales if the revenue would go toward a specific project like a property purchase.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien
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