SVC youth camp director: Let's talk
BENNINGTON — Amid uncertainty over the future of the former Southern Vermont College real estate, the director of a youth camp now leasing the property says he still hopes to purchase the 371-acre campus.
Moshe Perlstein said during an interview that he also wants to discuss with town officials and community members ways to provide local access to the campus athletic fields, the athletic center, the former Everett Mansion; hiking trails and other amenities if his not-for-profit, New Jersey-based camp organization acquires the property.
"We would love to run a camp here, not just for one year," he said. "And most importantly, I would love to work with the community. We have a beautiful gym, we have a beautiful sports field; and I mentioned very clearly, let's sit down and figure out a way for the community to continue to use it."
Perlstein, 43, established summer camps the week of July 5 on the Bennington campus and in a Holiday Inn in Rutland, which he said also was leased.
Following a flurry of concerns on social media about the three-week event at SVC, town and state officials have since issued statements confirming they believe the camp for about 350 youth is compliant with health and safety regulations.
Those rules include state requirements for visitors to Vermont during the COVID-19 epidemic.
Perlstein has said the children were tested for the virus before leaving New Jersey and will be tested weekly while in Vermont, and that because of the epidemic, all day trips off the campus have been cancelled.
Staff members, he said, were tested and quarantined prior to coming to Vermont.
Town is monitoring
Select Board Chairman Donald Campbell said Sunday that town officials visited the camp site Friday, following up on an initial inspection for fire and safety issues in the buildings on July 1.
Local officials are monitoring the camp, called Zichron Chaim, and have been in contact with state officials, Campbell said, adding that Perlstein is working with the Bennington staff and has been cooperative.
One issue still being resolved as of Friday was noise from electronic music from the camp, which has drawn complaints from residents, he said.
Campbell added that he communicated to Perlstein that at some point he would like the camp director to come to a Select Board meeting to discuss his long-range plans for the campus should Zichron Chaim's sale agreement with the college go through.
Campbell added, "It's also my hope people can have a heart on this and think of these children who would be cooped up for the summer and now get to come up here and enjoy our fresh air. The bad part of all this is COVID-19."
Events last week further clouded an already uncertain situation regarding the former college property. The SVC Corporation had voluntarily entered Chapter 7 bankruptcy process July 1 — apparently to conclude with a final liquidation of the property and likely an auction — but the bankruptcy case was dismissed less than a week later.
That filing in U.S. Bankruptcy Court-Vermont District effectively stayed all activity pertaining to college assets. This included the lease/purchase agreement Perlstein's organization had previously negotiated with the former college's board of trustees.
On July 3, however, the court-appointed bankruptcy trustee overseeing the Chapter 7 process filed an emergency motion to dismiss the SVC case, after learning that the camp with about 350 staying on campus had not been cancelled as he assumed.
The court granted the dismissal and released the trustee, Raymond Obuchowski, from the role.
Obuchowski said he could not get assurances right before the holiday weekend that the estate's considerable assets were fully insured and filed an emergency motion to dismiss.
Ownership of the campus apparently reverted back to the college corporation at that time, but the attorney listed as representing the college, Heather Cooper, of Facey Goss & McPhee, of Rutland, could not be reached for comment on the next steps concerning the campus.
Former board of trustees Chairman David Newell, who said previously that the board had dissolved and resigned after filing for Chapter 7, referred comment to Cooper.
The Chapter 7 case was dismissed without prejudice, meaning it could be refiled, but the filers would apparently have to satisfy the court that the estate assets are adequately protected from liability during camps on the campus.
Perlstein has said the camp that began July 5 will be run for three weeks and a second three-week camp is planned after that.
Concerning the lease and purchase agreement he reached with the college prior to the Chapter 7 filing, Perlstein said he is reluctant to speak in detail about it without knowing all the ramifications of recent events.
"Everything up in the air," he said.
But he added on Sunday, "I have an agreement. The question now is who I will be dealing with."
Perlstein stressed that he is willing to meet with officials or residents to talk about plans for the campus. He said Thursday that he had met with Brad DeBoer, president of the Bennington Area Trail System group, about "no trespassing" signs that had been posted on some trail entrances on the campus and that the issue had been resolved.
DeBoer later posted a notice on group's Facebook page, describing the agreement reached with Perlstein to remove the signs.
Perlstein said he believes a campus management company posted the no-trespassing signs prior to the campers arriving.
Should his group acquire the campus, he added, "it could be the best thing that ever happened to Bennington."
While leasing the property, he said, his group has spent $200,000 to $300,000 hiring local electrical and other contractors, and for supplies from Home Depot, Walmart and other local businesses.
"If we [the campers] could travel off campus, that number would go up by 10," he said.
Because of the COVID-19 restrictions, the planned day trips with the children have been cancelled and they will remain at the camp site.
Social media effects
In general, the camp's interaction with Vermont and local officials and residents — separate from a storm of negative commenting on social media after the campers' arrival — has been positive, Perlstein said.
"It's been an unbelievable experience," he said, referring to interactions with state and town officials and local contractors and all but "a couple people" who reacted negatively when the buses arrived.
"I always said that Vermont is America's best kept secret," he said. "I am starting to say the people are."
He added, "I wonder if it is the nature and the beautiful area that keeps people so nice and so calm but the experience is unbelievable. Rotten apples, you are going to have anywhere That is especially true today, with the internet and social media."
With the internet, he said, "It is just so easy to take a good thing and turn it into a sour thing. I look at myself as a person that wants to do good, and I understand that my campers deserve to have a good time, and that the people of Vermont deserve a good time. And we are all concerned about health, but ultimately the people here are great, really."
Direct communication is the key, he said, citing the volume of texting and other electronic communication in the internet age.
Quoting from an article in the Atlantic, he said, "'conversation competence might be the single most overlooked skill we fail to teach today.' I believe that is what's happening here right now. If people feel their quality of life is being affected by us coming here, I'll work with you; let's talk."
Began 10 years ago
Perlstein said he began Zichron Chaim "in memory of my dad [Chaim Perlstein] ten years ago, after he passed away from pancreatic cancer. "I understood a need for children to get away. Children have an opportunity in the summer that they don't have all year round, and many children, what they do in a month or two months in the summer, is their energy and their drive to keep them through the year."
He added, "We are a not-for-profit, and we're 50 percent of the price of other camps. I do this in memory of my dad. I say, what better way to save money and give kids an opportunity to enjoy the summer, and what better place to do that than in the state of Vermont?"
Perlstein said he previously visited the state as a tourist in the Killington area. Vermont, he said, also was his father's favorite place to visit in the summer.
"Having a camp in memory of him in his favorite place is beautiful," he said.
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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