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Bridging a Town-Gown Divide - With Money 

Middlebury College invests in its downtown

The relationship between the town of Middlebury and its eponymous college has entered a sort of “Pax Middleburiana,” with a friendlier town-gown ethos than has reigned in decades. The new mood has a lot to do with the largesse flowing from the college to the town, which has consisted of some big-ticket items and lots of smaller ones, not to mention an increased downtown presence.

What changed? Most observers point to Middlebury College President Ron Liebowitz, who took over the office in 2004. To be sure, some of the infrastructure supporting his good-neighbor policy predates him, but it was never as visible, or as costly, before.

Among the major items are the college’s commitment of $1 million to Porter Hospital and another million to the refurbished Town Hall Theater. Most significant, from town residents’ point of view, is the pledge of $9 million toward construction of a second bridge.

The list of investments goes on. Recently the college purchased — and agreed to pay $16,000 in annual taxes on — the Old Stone Mill building in Frog Hollow, which was vacant except for a restaurant on the first floor. It is also picking up half the cost of a full-time policeman and has paid off the bond for a new fire engine. Finally, students volunteer some 42,000 hours of service during the academic year. According to Middlebury College Public Affairs Director Sarah Ray, that’s equivalent to a 20-person full-time workforce.

All of this, town officials say, is very welcome.

John Tenny, chair of the Middlebury Selectboard, has been watching the town-gown interaction evolve since he joined the board in 1995. “The board has been studying ways to improve relations over the past two decades,” he says. “We’ve had monthly meetings with the college since the early years of the [John] McCardell administration. During that time,” Tenny continues, “we got our first gift agreement of $1 million over 10 years for general support. That has evolved into a trust fund for the town based on endowment revenues.”

Tenny agrees that lately the college has reached new levels of visibility and financial support. “I think John [McCardell] had the spirit, but the board hadn’t quite joined him,” he suggests. “Ron is working in a time when the board was unanimous in supporting the gift.”

Tenny is referring to that nine mil for the bridge. The town petitioned the college when it had exhausted all other funding possibilities, he explains, “and they said yes to the whole amount. I’m not sure we were expecting that.”

As for the Town Hall Theater, Executive Director Doug Anderson had struggled mightily over the past decade to raise funds to renovate the old Knights of Columbus Hall and turn it into a venue for plays, music and other community events. The building now also holds an art gallery and artists’ studios. Anderson has established a collaborative connection with Middlebury students and faculty, evidenced most recently in a joint town-gown production of Gypsy. Not surprisingly, he has nothing but praise for the college’s contribution.

“As far back as the founding of the college [in 1800], this was ‘the town’s college,’” says Anderson, an adjunct faculty member who teaches musical theater. In his view, it’s high time the town-gown divide of more recent times was laid to rest. “My goal is to provide great arts products,” Anderson says. “There’s a lively arts scene up the hill, and putting it here at Town Hall Theater makes it much more accessible to local people.”

Across Main Street and down the hill at Frog Hollow, the reclamation of the Old Stone Mill is seen as Liebowitz’s pet project. The building now offers studios to students who couldn’t find space on campus to carry out their projects. Current occupants include painters, photographers, musicians, a woodworker and a group recording oral histories.

This type of enterprise epitomizes Liebowitz’s goal of moving students off the hill and beyond their comfort zones. “Campus can’t provide everything these students want,” he says. Venues such as Old Stone Mill and 51 Main (see sidebar) invite students to “meet the town,” he suggests. “They open doors of opportunity.”

Since joining the geography faculty in 1984, Liebowitz says, he was bothered by the mistrustful tone of town-gown relations. “It was obvious to me that the health of the town depended on the health of the college and vice versa,” says the prez. “But I used to listen to constant complaints about the college, and about the ‘wealthy, privileged brats’ who go here.”

After Liebowitz took the helm, he started attending Middlebury Business Association meetings. “I said, ‘Give me one big idea of what the college can do for you.’”

The answer was already there: Town Hall Theater. “I’m a strong believer in the cost-benefit of that,” affirms Liebowitz. “The $1 million has a huge multiplier effect. I knew Doug and I trusted him. He agreed to provide internships, and it’s a good way for students to become involved downtown.”

Liebowitz acknowledges that he’s “taken a more engaging approach to the town” than did his predecessor. “At first, people were cautioning me to move slowly, to be careful,” he says. “But that hadn’t really worked before.”

Now that Middlebury’s Frog Hollow Crafts Gallery has closed its doors, the college is looking at the vacant building adjacent to the Old Stone Mill. One of his ideas is to help save the arts-education program still operated by the crafts nonprofit. “I like to look for opportunities,” says the college’s 16th president. “We’re always going to be the elephant in town … so we can’t worry about it. We just have to move ahead.”

The Money Issue

It’s true what they say: Money makes the world go ’round. It’s also true that in recent months unfathomable sums have gone down the drain — and more are circling it — in the world economy. Unfortunately, that’s no April Fool’s joke.

Like everyone else, Vermonters have tightened their belts and hunkered down to ride out the recession … we hope. But not all is grim in the Green Mountain State, as some of our stories in this issue report. So, we’re watching the bottom line and counting our blessings.

Click here for other Money Issue stories.

Main Objection

One of Middlebury College’s downtown projects has not met with universal approval: 51 Main. Yet a patron would never know the cozy restaurant-bar was the center of controversy. Inside the handsomely renovated, multilevel room, brick walls and bronze-colored pressed-tin ceiling tiles exude warmth, while a worldly menu says sophistication. Since the college took it over last summer, 51 Main has attracted both students and locals.

And there’s the rub: According to some merchants and other observers, the college should not be competing for downtown business.

Testy exchanges have appeared on the “Letters” pages of the Addison Independent. One commentator declared that the college has “a certain tone-deafness” toward the town and its businesses. Rebutting that view, another resident wondered whether the previous writer “would prefer … an empty storefront? Seven or eight newly unemployed? Less dining variety? Reduced economic vitality?”

Tom Corbin, director of business services at the college, says the idea for 51 Main grew out of a campus survey conducted two years ago in which students expressed their need for “a more urban place to go.” When the restaurant Eat Good Food closed, its space was up for grabs.

51 Main launched last summer with a low profile, opening its doors only Thursday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Barbara Doyle-Wilch, the former dean of library services, came out of retirement at the request of President Ron Liebowitz to act as programming director for the newly created space. She’s proud of what the venue has become.

Sitting in a sunny window one recent afternoon, Doyle-Wilch points out the amenities: a bar with wine, beer and top-shelf liquor; a kitchen that turns out such exotic fare as a tapas platter, Ethiopian chicken stew and “Bunny Chow” from Chef Stan Ricupero’s native South Africa.

Doyle-Wilch’s favorite part of the project is programming eclectic entertainment, which to date has included country-western music, an Italian masquerade ball, a Japanese karaoke night, a Hebrew sing-along and poetry set to hip-hop. “We mix it up to avoid being put in a niche,” she says.

51 Main inadvertently put itself in the hot seat, though, with a decision to expand its hours of operation — opening at 1 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday — and to begin advertising. The initial business model “was not breaking even,” the college’s Corbin says bluntly. “We had a gift for the startup, but once that money runs out, it’s gone.”

One vocal protester is Carol’s Hungry Mind owner John Melanson, who has worried about the impact of 51 Main on his coffee shop from the beginning. With its expanded hours, the restaurant has more opportunity to attract tourists, he grouses.

“We’ve researched the market,” says Melanson, “and foot traffic in the summer is what takes me over the top. I know that without the college, I wouldn’t be here. I appreciate the college. But I wouldn’t come into town and open a business that already existed.” Melanson avers, “I’ve gotta do something. I’m trying to save my life here.”

For his part, Liebowitz doesn’t quite get Melanson’s beef. “Competition would be there in any case — if not from us, then from someone else,” he says, adding that the college offered to help Melanson write a new business plan, but the offer was rejected. “The truth,” Liebowitz concludes, “is that we’re damned if we do and damned if we don’t.”

This president, clearly, prefers to do.

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