POULTNEY — The Select Board and dozens of residents met with Green Mountain College President Bob Allen on Monday night to discuss what the closure of the college would mean for Poultney.
Despite the hopes of many in the crowd, Allen said the campus would not reopen without substantial financial assistance and more students.
“We anticipate operating at a much reduced level after May 19,” Allen said. “We’ll be down to a skeleton crew. ... One staff member announced today that they were leaving.”
Green Mountain College announced last week it will close at the end of the Spring 2019 semester, citing a decrease in tuition revenue and an increase in expenses.
The college owes approximately $22.5 million in total, with $19.5 million owed to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, according to Allen.
Allen said GMC tried for the past 18 months to merge with another institution, and he even offered to resign to cut the cost of faculty.
“It’s the easiest thing to understand,” Allen said. “One president, one provost — all that is senior folks. ... (I said) I’ll be the first to resign ... they were unwilling to take the risk, given the environment (of higher education.)”
When asked what could happen if $22.5 million were to appear, Allen said he’d be willing to try to keep the college alive, but it wasn’t the school’s main problem.
When he arrived at GMC, Allen said, there were 450 students. 200 more were projected, but for the past two years, annually, the school has managed to attract only 150.
“Our problem is the operating expenses,” Allen said. “We need about 600 students ... plus the graduate program just to break even ... The debt’s cheap: It’s only 3.5 percent fixed for 35 years.”
Allen said there is a long-term plan for the individual building improvements using money that’s been prepared ahead of time.
The debt payment this year, interest-only, Allen said, is $635,000, and GMC has a tiny endowment of $2.9 million compared to Middlebury College’s $1 billion.
“To buy the college, you’d have to clear the debt,” Allen said. “You have 450,000 square feet, and if you did everything, $100 per square foot ... that’s another $45 million dollars. ... I ball-parked it would probably cost a couple hundred thousand dollars a year, maybe at the low-end it might be more like half a million ... just to keep the campus running, but doing maintenance to keep up.”
The campus won’t be rented out to Middlebury College for its summer foreign language program this year, and the program would probably, henceforth, be relocated to Castleton University, Allen said.
“Right now, we have no activity planned for the campus this summer,” Allen said. “Normally, we have a summer farm intensive — that won’t be scheduled.”
All the typical campus activities are still scheduled for the semester until June 30, when Allen said, ideally, the college will have secured a buy-out with another institution.
“The one that has the most interest is out of Australia,” Allen said.
Allen said the college currently employs about 150 full-time people including grounds and food service staff, a number of whom have already found jobs.
“The ones I know are out of state,” Allen said.
The Dean’s Preserve, which was donated to Green Mountain College by landowner Bill Osbourne, would return to his possession, and all of the buildings — including the farmhouse and Two Editors Inn — would belong to the USDA and Key Bank.
The only building left alone would be the former home of the Stone Valley Community Market, which currently stands vacant.
Allen said the college will remain accredited through July 31 to help students complete the credits needed to graduate.
“They will receive their Green Mountain College degree if they can finish their credits before July 31, even though the college has really, essentially, ceased the academic parts of the operation a few days before May 19,” Allen said.
“There’s all kinds of possibilities (for the grounds),” said Select Board Chairman Jeff King. “You could take the farmland and make it into a horse-training field, like track and barrel jumping, and you could actually keep it under the education level.”
Allen said he’s meeting with the USDA on Feb. 13, and the college is working with two brokers to secure the sale of the property.
“One is a very large, essentially, real-estate company,” Allen said. “The other is a one-person shop who does a lot of international work.”
The college doesn’t own the lodge and residence hall at its Killington Mountain School of Resort Management, and Castleton University is interested in taking over the program — that is, once GMC and Ramshead Trust come to an agreement about allegedly required upgrades to the school’s water system, according to Allen. Those are part of an ongoing legal dispute.
“There are regulatory and a couple of legal issues that would have to be overcome in order for Castleton to take over their program,” Allen said.
The land belongs to the Ramshead Trust and GMC signed a new 10-year lease for the property in 2014.
The request for judgment in the legal dispute quotes sections of the lease agreement, which requires that the college not do anything that would impact the value of the land.
The lease also requires that GMC comply with government permits and says the college “shall be responsible for obtaining and paying for any necessary governmental permits or approvals and the construction of all alterations, improvements and additions.”
The request for judgment said KSRM had added enough new residents to trigger Vermont to require an upgrade to the water system, at a cost of more than $100,000.
Ben Montross, compliance and support services section chief for the Drinking Water and Groundwater Protection Division for the Department of Environmental Conservation under the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, said there are several requirements including a permit for the system’s well, which will need to be approved for quantity and quality.
Burlington attorney Christopher Roy, representing Ramshead, said the nature of the dispute was over who was going to pay for the upgrades.
The trust’s attorney argues they would suffer damages if they’re either required to pay for the water system improvements or break the lease with GMC, which would mean the loss of rental income.
The request asks the court for a declaratory judgment that says GMC is obligated to pay for the water system upgrades and that GMC pay attorney’s fees. No dollar figure is stated in the request.
A response filed by Burlington attorney Andrew MacIlwaine in June 2018 denies that GMC added residents or that the state’s order for water system improvements is based on any action taken by the college.
At Monday’s meeting, Poultney resident and former selectman Ernie DeMatties urged all in the room to do as he had done: call the governor, legislators and anyone they could to try to figure out how to save Poultney now that GMC is closing.
“What can we do to salvage this town?” DeMatties said.
“To me, this is the beginning of a new game,” King said. “You’ve got to go forward.”