Our opinion: SVC opportunity merits a close look
Disappointment was in the air last month when the Oliverian School, a college preparatory boarding school in Pike, New Hampshire, withdrew its $4.9 million bid to buy the Bennington campus of the former Southern Vermont College. "During this process, we came to love both this stunning campus and the Bennington community," Will Laughlin, Oliverian's head of school, said in a media release, "but after a rigorous examination, we have determined that the economics of this wonderful campus do not work for Oliverian School at this time."
In an edition of the Oliverian Campus News obtained by the Banner, Laughlin explained that the school had come to its decision after a "rigorous and fruitful" due diligence process that "gave us an accurate sense of the funds required to responsibly occupy the SVC campus."
"While the purchase price is remarkable, the maintenance and repair costs — particularly those associated with the historic Everett Mansion — simply do not make economic sense for Oliverian at this time," Laughlin said. "We would have to raise at least triple the negotiated purchase price to responsibly occupy the campus."
This seems to put the SVC trustees, and all interested parties in the community at large, back at square one. The question remains: Who might be the right buyer for a 371-acre main campus that includes, in addition to the Everett Mansion, a dining hall, the Mountaineer Athletic Center with its fitness center, and six residential buildings, including a residence hall complex, Hunter Hall, that was completed in 2009?
Here's one thought that's been making the rounds lately: How about the Town of Bennington?
Proponents of this idea, first put forward by Bennington resident Mike Bethel, have suggested that the $4.9 million purchase price Oliverian was contemplating for the campus might not be so very far off from the cost of the second phase of the Bennington Recreation Center expansion project. Rather than spend millions on the Rec Center, they say, why not buy the former SVC fitness center, and in essence get the rest of the campus for free?
There's a lot to like about this idea. The residential buildings could be repurposed to provide a variety of housing options, something in short supply in a county where the apartment vacancy rate stands at 0.4 percent. That would help attract more people to Bennington, and provide the town with an income stream. There's value to be had in simply preserving the property, with its hiking trails and breathtaking views. There's room for dreaming here. For instance, could the baseball diamond at Epstein Field provide a home for a local baseball team, whether an amateur team like the SteepleCats of nearby North Adams, Massachusetts, or even a Minor League team like Burlington's Vermont Lake Monsters?
What of the 27-room Everett Mansion itself, the apparent deal-killer in the Oliverian sale? Certainly, the town would need to assess the historic building's current condition, and develop realistic estimates for its repair and maintenance. David Evans, the former president of SVC, saw the building's shortcomings clearly: "It's a terrible building for the Vermont climate. The terra cotta roof tiles are very subject to freeze/thaw cycles. And that's always a problem. The windows are all single-pane windows. And, of course, it doesn't have air conditioning. We struggle a little bit with that," he told Vermont Public Radio in 2018.
It's possible to imagine a scenario in which the town puts the building in mothballs, and takes time to further investigate its potential future. What might that be? Here's one thought: a restored Everett Mansion, an architectural gem already listed on the National Register of Historic Places, would be a perfect complement to the Park-McCullough House. Finding a use for the building, and funding to make that happen, could be a project all on its own.
We know that the town doesn't have $4.9 million sitting in a bank account to buy the property. But it does have a potential source of funding in the 1 percent local option tax. If approved by voters at Town Meeting, the roughly $1 million that this tax would generate from retail sales, meals, rooms and alcoholic beverages could be dedicated to paying off a bond for the purchase of the campus, without affecting property taxes.
We're not saying that this is what should happen — no one knows how it all might all play out. But we do believe that the idea deserves some serious consideration. The Select Board would be wise, we think, to appoint an ad-hoc committee representing all of Bennington to give this idea a thorough look and report back its findings.
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