POULTNEY — Green Mountain College may have a new owner, but the future of the school remains unclear.
Last month, Shoreham resident and entrepreneur Raj Peter Bhakta bought the 155-acre property at auction for $4.55 million, plus fees. The sale, which was well below the initial asking price of $20 million, will reportedly be finalized sometime this month.
Founded in 1834, GMC was Poultney’s largest employer until it closed in May 2019. The liberal arts college was one of several recent closures in Vermont’s higher-education community — a victim of declining enrollment and increasing expenses.
Since then, the town with a population of just less than 3,300, has been struggling to recover from the loss while weathering the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic as well.
Bhakta’s investment may be a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.
Born in Philadelphia in 1975, Bhakta has a reputation for having a big personality, an entrepreneurial spirit and the flash and hustle of a showman.
The son of immigrant parents — his father is from India, his mother, Ireland — he studied finance at Boston College, where he graduated in 1998.
From there, he worked as an investment banker in New York City before setting out on several independent business ventures.
In 2004, he was a contestant on season two of the Donald Trump-hosted reality TV show “The Apprentice.”
Following that, he made an unsuccessful run for Congress as a Republican against Democrat Allyson Schwartz in 2006, in Pennsylvania’s 13th congressional district
As part of the campaign, he rode an elephant along the Rio Grande with a mariachi band in tow. The stunt was intended to make a point about U.S.-Mexico border security.
But for all the showiness, Bhakta has proved he can cultivate success from ruin.
In 2007, he moved to Shoreham where he bought an aging dairy farm. Three years later, he founded WhistlePig Whiskey after buying several thousand gallons of premium Canadian whiskey that he bottled in Vermont. The brand has become a top-seller worldwide among ultra-premium rye whiskies.
Yet Bhakta’s success has not been without controversy. In 2016, he was forced off WhistlePig’s board of directors, effectively removing him from the company he founded.
At the time, two members of the board accused Bhakta of misappropriating millions of dollars in company money for personal use, saying WhistlePig was his “personal piggy bank.”
According June 16, 2016, story in the Burlington Free Press, the board members said Bhakta spent several million dollars without board authorization on renovations and improvements to his Shoreham farm where he founded WhistlePig.
Also, Bhakta was accused of making a “secret promise of equity” to executive assistant Danhee Kim, which he neglected to disclose to the board. Kim is now Bhakta’s wife. Board members said the equity promised to Kim “amounted to 5% of the company, more than 100 times the equity promised to any other employee of similar responsibilities and experience.”
In a 2015 interview with Entrepreneur magazine, Bhakta said his failure to disclose was “a good faith oversight, not fraud.”
By 2017, he had retired from the company. A year later, he was bought out entirely and is no longer involved with the company. The terms of the buyout were not disclosed.
In Shoreham, reviews of Bhakta are mixed.
“Some people love him, and some people hate him,” said Steve Goodrich, chairman of the town Select Board, who agreed that his flashy presence in the community is amusing for some but a headache for others.
Attempts to interview several other Shoreham residents and town officials were declined.
Goodrich thinks Bhakta’s been good for the town.
“He has taken old farms and improved them and fixed them up and has made them into viable businesses,” he said.
He is optimistic about Bhakta’s plans for GMC.
“It’s something that I thought is needed in the state of Vermont,” he said. “I hope that he’s able to pull it off, and if anybody can, I think he will.”
Since exiting WhistlePig, Bhakta has founded Bhakta Farms with locations in Shoreham, Florida and France. He also started Bhakta Brandy, which bottles premium French brandy.
Speaking to Vermont Public Radio last week, Bhakta suggested his Shoreham farm may be part of his new college’s work school model.
“I see the college and Bhakta Farms and everything that we produce being integrally related,” he said.
He also told WCAX Monday that his new business ventures will provide a revenue stream to maintain the college.
In June, Bhakta appeared on “Tucker Carlson Tonight” on Fox News to tout the virtues of finding entrepreneurial success in rural America.
The segment featured an introduction in which Carlson tells viewers, “If you’ve lived in a big American city over the past year, you might feel like you want to get out now. … Your mayor let looters burn your neighborhood. People around you are miserable, they’re mad” over footage of burning vehicles and social unrest.
“There’s never been a better time to move to rural America,” Bhakta said, emphasizing the high quality of life.
He encouraged people to follow his lead and find a “niche” like he did and “build a fortune.”
Bhakta concluded the interview with a non-sequitur, telling Carlson, “I want to say, Tucker, as a minority I was a little afraid to come on your show, but I wanted to tell you and other white people that I remain their friend as a minority.”
The niche Bhakta is carving out in Poultney remains nebulous. He has said he plans to turn GMC into an agricultural work college where students would graduate debt-free and, ideally, become a new generation of entrepreneurs in Vermont.
He told VPR he plans on launching a pilot program of about 30-50 students by next spring.
In his WCAX interview, Bhakta predicted greatness for the college.
“I’ll bet in 10 years, we have the greatest college. Greatest work-ag college in the entire world,” he said, adding that his “successful track record” backed up the claim.
In Poultney, business owners think Bhakta could provide a potential lifeline to the town’s floundering economy.
Serena Smith, owner of Taps Tavern on Main Street, is excited to welcome Bhakta.
She said she “benefited greatly” from the college and feels its absence.
“There’s definitely something missing without the college — all those teachers, all those staff members, all the students — it definitely feels a little ghost-like,” she said.
Smith said while she has gotten a whiff of negativity from people on social media who point out Bhakta’s past drama, she’s reserving judgment.
“I, personally, don’t judge a book by its cover. I mean, we all have a past.” Smith said. “ I’m going to give him a chance until he proves otherwise.”
Smith thinks Bhakta’s vision of an agricultural work college is a good fit for Poultney that carries on the tradition of GMC. She said stated plans to keep the college name is a respectful gesture to the community.
Donna Perry has owned and operated Perry’s restaurant, also on Main Street, for 24 years. She said is hopeful for what Bhakta can bring to Poultney.
“I really do think it’s a good thing because this town needs some revenue,” she said. “I don’t know what he’s going to be putting in, but I’m sure it could probably increase the revenue in town a little bit.”
Perry said business has been “not really consistent” since GMC closed and the pandemic hit.
She said the college population made up a good part of her business so she is eager to see more new activity on campus.
“I just feel that we’ve lost so many businesses in town,” she said. “I just think it would be really good for the good for the town.”
Multiple attempts to interview Bhakta and Poultney and Town Manager Paul Donaldson for this story were unsuccessful.
On Friday, Donaldson issued a statement to the Herald via an email from Poultney Economic Development Coordinator Sarah Pelkey.
“We are hopeful that Mr. Bhakta’s vision for repurposing the campus will bring increased prosperity for the community and expanded opportunities for people seeking out a different type of educational experience,” Donaldson said. “The town and village of Poultney look forward to forging a relationship with our new neighbor and are very optimistic about Poultney’s future.”
A representative for Bhakta provided a statement Friday afternoon as well, writing, “Raj plans on leading a revival of the college and the town of Poultney.”