POULTNEY, Vt. — Nearly 200 people gathered at Poultney High School on Thursday night to discuss the future of Green Mountain College’s campus and suggest community initiatives to address the economic hit the town will take when the school closes in May.
Residents of Poultney do not have the final say on what happens to the campus, but college trustees were in attendance and said the community’s input would play a large role in their considerations.
Green Mountain College President Bob Allen said the college’s board of trustees has already heard from several groups interested in the college.
The first option he mentioned was a group formed by the Save GMC effort and a partner called Renewable Nations, both of which are interested in continuing the college as a different undergraduate institution with a similar focus on sustainability.
In January, Green Mountain College officially announced it will cease operations at the end of the spring semester. Southern Vermont College joined them earlier this month, with both citing declining enrollment as the main reason for their financial problems. The loss of the institutions has left alumni and students angry and disappointed, but the effects of their closings go far beyond those who attend.
Allen said he also heard from another group, which he did not name, that has secured funds for a feasibility study. He said that group has a similar sustainability mission, but with many different options for revenue sources. Allen said with the news of other small colleges in the area closing, the board is looking to change things up.
“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. “The business model of a small liberal arts college in a rural town in New England is basically broken.”
Allen also said the college would not need to file for bankruptcy. He said a 2016 appraisal of the property was around $20 million and the current debt was nearly $22 million.
Poultney Town Manager Paul Donaldson let residents know about programs and grants in town that were already in motion.
Donaldson mentioned the possibility of hiring a full-time economic development coordinator to focus on the transition period, but was met with several groans when he announced the position would cost around $45,000 per year.
Paul Costello, executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development, went over ideas that were pitched at a meeting last month, and attendees on Thursday were given six dot stickers to place their votes on the sheet with the ideas they liked most.
Popular suggestions for the campus included creating a satellite location for other colleges, such as the University of Vermont or Middlebury College, creating a multi-use business park, creating an agricultural and sustainability education institute with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and developing a trade college.
Although residents do not make the decision about the future of the campus, Costello reminded everyone they do have the power to create initiatives for the town to boost activity on their own.
Continuing to develop hiking and bike trails in the area to draw outdoor recreation enthusiasts as well as bringing back a bank to the town were the most popular suggestions for immediate community development.
Brad and Anne Slonaker, who live across the street from the college’s campus, said they liked most of the ideas and didn’t have a strong preference for any particular initiative. They said they were totally against the idea of the campus becoming a correctional facility, though, and also wanted to see the momentum around trail and outdoor recreation development in the area continue.
Caitrin Maloney, a self-employed small-business owner, said there were infrastructural challenges in Poultney that would need to be addressed or else the town may have trouble attracting people to live and work in the area.
“It took six weeks just to get a landline put in,” Maloney said. “I try to work from home, but the ISP (internet service provider) said I lived too far out for a high-speed internet line and if I don’t have that I can’t work.”
Danny Lang, shop manager for the Renewable Energy and Ecological Design program at Green Mountain College, said he thought the meeting was helpful and the people of Poultney should be hopeful. He said he thinks officials from the state and rural development groups were earnestly invested in seeing the town through this transitional phase.
He said the community would have to have input on what some of the spaces could become, such as a theater to host concerts or galleries for artists’ work to attract visitors.
“I want people to feel like it’s theirs, for whatever purpose it may be,” Lang said. “Whatever space it is, we will have to diversify to make it viable and sustainable economically as well.”