About 50 people attended a public meeting last Wednesday to hear about potential future plans for the use of College of St. Joseph as a “center for innovation and excellence.”
Robert Zulkoski, chairman and managing partner of Vermont Works, an investment firm that has partnered with the college, offered an encouraging word about the ambitious plans to revive the working space, living space and event space on campus for new uses.
“I think the most important thing to know is, I don’t think any of us would be spending the time or spending the money if we didn’t think this was viable, right? We’ve done enough work ahead of time — yes, there’s no shortage of heavy lifting going forward that we need to do, and everyone in this room plays a critical component in helping us because the main beneficiary, hopefully, for this whole thing is the community — but we wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t think we could do it,” he said.
Under pressure from the New England Commission of Higher Education to demonstrate the college’s future financial sustainability, the board of directors at the college, or CSJ, decided to close the doors as a degree-granting institution. The last class graduated at the end of the 2018-19 academic year.
In June, Dr. Jennifer Scott, president of the college, said her staff and staff from Vermont Works and Vermont Innovation Commons were working together to create a plan that would allow future education opportunities at the school.
On Wednesday, more details were provided about the vision for CSJ’s future.
Mayor David Allaire alluded to other area colleges, Green Mountain College in Poultney and Southern Vermont College in Bennington, which closed recently.
“In case you hadn’t heard, the College of St. Joe’s is not closed. It’s time to reinvent the college, and I want to tell you that the city is excited that there is interest in doing just that. We want to be able to support the efforts that are going down here as much as we possibly can,” Allaire said.
Scott said she had already told NECHE officials that her long-term plan was to return CSJ’s ability to grant degrees.
The idea of creating an “innovation center” comes from other success stories across the country or the world, said Dennis Moynihan, director of programs for Vermont Innovation Commons.
The “components” of the center are programming — or ongoing education — co-living space, event space, co-working space and design space, or collaborative creative space. Moynihan pointed out those different aspects all match up with facilities on a college campus. At CSJ, those sites are currently idle.
The CSJ campus is in a federally designated “opportunity zone,” which provides access to capital.
A feasibility study, estimated to take 120 days to complete, has begun and is expected to be ready by the end of September.
“At that point, we expect to have a plan that is informed by the things that we learned during these four months about how to implement such an idea and such initiatives here at CSJ,” Scott said.
Moynihan said the results of the study could have other benefits.
“What comes next? As we said earlier, (the study) is the blueprint for the nuts-and-bolts of how we start taking things forward. It’s great to have a concept, but you really have to do the heavy lifting to know what’s going to work. Going forward from here, it’s about execution, it’s about taking the findings and the output of the feasibility study, looking at the next steps, which are detailed engineering, detailed construction planning, detailed program assessment. It also gives us the framework, that we can start having the conversations with venture funding, opportunity zone funding, other funders, to invest in the idea of creating the innovation center here as a going concern and looking for returns on that investment,” she said.
Moynihan said the study will give the project’s organizers a “viable story” to tell when they seek investors.
Another public meeting on the project is expected at the end of September.
Until then, ideas, comments and feedback can be sent by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.