Our opinion: Southern Vermont may learn from Poultney's example
Folks in Bennington and across the rest of Southern Vermont should keep a close eye on goings-on in Poultney, as that community wrestles with the potential future for the campus of Green Mountain College.
Because GMC announced it was shutting its doors in January, months before similar announcements at Southern Vermont College in Bennington and the College of St. Joseph in Rutland, GMC is out ahead when it comes to the process of winding down and deciding what to do with the assets. There's still a long way to go.
Last week, about 300 Poultney residents gathered at Poultney High School to discuss the future of GMC, its buildings and 155-acre campus, and whether it could and should continue as an educational institution focused on environmental sustainability or serve some other purpose.
The stakes for Poultney are high. The GMC campus is literally in the heart of town, and the economic impact of GMC's closure upon the town of about 3,300 is significant. So it's good to hear that college officials were willing to listen to the community and their ideas, and in public. That's an example SVC would be wise to emulate when the time comes to chart a future course.
According to media accounts, college president Robert Allen told the gathered audience that GMC's board of trustees has already heard from several interested suitors, including some interested in continuing the college and its environmental sustainability mission under a new banner.
Allen also cited interest from another group, whom he did not identify. He said that group also has an environmental sustainability mission in mind, the funding in hand to conduct a feasibility study, and a number of options for the revenue to fund its goals.
"The solutions I see out there and the solutions likely to be accepted by the board would be solutions that change the complexion to a certain degree of Green Mountain College," Allen said, according to the Glens Falls Post-Star. "The business model of a small liberal arts college in a rural town in New England is basically broken."
Green Mountain, like SVC, is a small private school facing three significant hurdles: Declining enrollment, a heavy financial reliance upon tuition for operating expenses, and substantial debt.
Settling that debt will say a lot about the future for GMC, and possibly for SVC as well. (Though it should be noted that GMC's debt of $22 million dwarfs the $6 million SVC owes its creditors.) That debt has to be settled.
Some Poultney residents want GMC to remain an educational institution; others floated the possibility of a mental health facility, or an innovation center for addressing climate change.
Though Allen and members of the GMC board listened to residents, they'll make the final decision. It might depend greatly upon negotiations with GMC's creditors, and what terms they're willing to accept. But Allen and the board seem to be aware that community support is better than the lack thereof.
A group of SVC supporters is working to save the college — they're up to $20,250 of their $75,000 goal on GoFundMe — and perhaps when it comes time to decide on a future for the 371-acre campus, they'll have a proposal to offer. We wish them well. But whether it's an effort to save SVC, another educational mission, or a potential use no one has thought of yet, transparency and community input are paramount.
The SVC campus, and the Edward Everett Mansion, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, are valuable assets and can and should be significant parts of Bennington's future. They deserve to be treated as such.
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