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Winston Prouty Center submits bid for Austine School campus

Early education organization looks to fellow organizations to move project forward

BRATTLEBORO—The former Austine School for the Deaf could have a new life as a collective if a bankruptcy court approves a purchase and sale agreement from the Winston Prouty Center.

The Winston Prouty Center submitted its purchase and sale agreement for the seven buildings and 200-acre campus last week.

Prouty Executive Director Chloe Learey said the center’s agreement is part of a bid process set up by the bankruptcy court.

“It would be great to have space where we could not only meet our needs but also collaborate with other nonprofits that might need space,” Learey said. “This will create an exciting opportunity to work together in new ways.”

She said she anticipates the bid process will take 30 to 45 days, during which other entities could outbid Prouty.

“These are very complicated puzzle pieces,” Learey said.

Prouty’s vision for the Austine campus is to create partnerships with other organizations that buy into the campus. It would be similar to a condo association, though Learey clarified, “We do not want to be landlords.”

Organizations renting space on the campus right now include High Five Adventure Learning, INSPIRE School for Autism, Garland School, UVM Extension and the New England Center for Circus Arts. Learey said those organizations will continue to use the campus.

“There is a lot of space,” she said. Indeed, it’s more than Prouty can use. For this vision to work, Prouty will need the community’s support, Learey added.

“Bankruptcy is no fun,” she said: “A lot of people miss out.”

After more than a century in Brattleboro, the Austine campus closed last autumn after the school declared bankruptcy. Part of the Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, the school included a number of popular support and educational programs.

According to a press release from the Winston Prouty Center, two major players seek reimbursement through the courts. Brattleboro Savings & Loan holds the campus’ mortgage and is owed approximately $2.6 million. The state also has a $5.67 million lien against Austine “for appropriations made to the school over the years.”

Prouty’s education programs and community-based services have outgrown its early education center, located on Guilford Street near Living Memorial Park.

The center decided to divert resources planned for a $2.4 million expansion project at its current location to relocating to the Austine campus.

Learey said the allure of the Austine site was in part financial. Project estimates for the expansion continued to creep higher. Meanwhile, the center could renovate existing buildings at Austine for a reasonable cost.

The other part of the center’s vision for the Austine campus includes supporting a community asset, she said.

In the same vein of “a rising tide lifts all boats,” Learey said that by taking care of existing assets and partnering with other organizations, more areas of the community can thrive.

“We can’t do it alone,” she continued.

Learey said that Prouty decided to jump into the project with faith that partners will join.

If all goes as planned, Winston Prouty will own the Austine campus by January 2016. Depending on the speed of the process, Prouty would move its programs either during the April or June school breaks.

Regardless, it seems Prouty will move to Austine. The center has also formed a backup plan that includes an option to lease space on the campus should the purchase and sales agreement fall through.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #331 (Wednesday, November 11, 2015). This story appeared on page B1.

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