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After pandemic-induced hiatus, music returns to Potash Hill

Marlboro Music begins 2021 season, despite questions about who owns the former college campus

MARLBORO—Marlboro Music began its 70th summer season last month, as 75 musicians journeyed to Potash Hill to study, practice, and perform together.

The musician residency and summer performance series has drawn musicians and music lovers to the area for decades, leaving a hole in many local music lovers’ sense of normalcy last year when the school cancelled its program in response to the global pandemic.

It is also why the school’s return this summer can be seen as a celebration of a post-Covid Vermont.

“It is such a pleasure to hear music resounding again on Potash Hill and to be reconvening our musical community here in Vermont,” Brian Potter, Marlboro Music’s director of communications, wrote in an email.

“Our musicians are so eager to get back to work,” Potter added, “to enjoy all the mentoring and camaraderie that Marlboro provides, and to return to what they love the most — sharing this great art form with one another and with all of us, amidst the warm and welcoming atmosphere at Marlboro and the natural beauty of southern Vermont.”

For seven weeks this summer, the former college campus will host approximately 75 instrumentalists and singers, a number similar to pre-Covid seasons. Participants rehearse together for three weeks and then open their work to the public over five weekends.

The audiences who attend the summer concerts typically travel from communities along the East Coast, but Potter said that many also travel to the area from across the United States and from overseas.

A question of ownership

Marlboro Music is returning to a campus that is different from the one it left in 2019, in the shadow of a big question mark.

Two entities — Democracy Builders, Inc., and Type 1 Civilization Academy Marlboro Campus LLC — claim ownership of the more than 500-acre campus.

Meanwhile, Democracy Builders founder Seth Andrew was arrested in April on federal charges of fraud.

Marlboro Music, which holds a 99-year lease to use the campus each summer for the musician residencies and festival, recently filed a case with the Windham Superior Court to determine to which entity the school will pay rent.

While the court has ruled on that question, the ownership question remains.

On June 17, Judge Katherine Hayes ruled that Marlboro Music will pay for any necessary maintenance during the summer festival 2021.

Hayes ruled that those total maintenance costs will be deducted from the festival’s annual rent of $287,009, which, for now, will go into an escrow account until it is decided who owns the campus.

According to court documents, Marlboro Music’s lease allows it exclusive rights to use a portion of the campus during 10 weeks each summer to host the Marlboro Music Festival. The lease also requires the landlord to maintain the campus so that it will be in good condition when the festival and participants arrive.

Under the lease, Marlboro Music also has a right of first refusal if the campus is sold. This right became active on Jan. 22, 2021, two years after the lease took effect, according to court documents.

On Jan. 28, however, the music school received a letter from Democracy Builders Fund and its founder Seth Andrew that the campus had been sold to Type 1 Civilization Academy Marlboro Campus LLC.

The letter also said future rent payments should go to Type 1, stated Christopher Serkin, Marlboro Music president and chair of the board, in a May affidavit.

In February, Andrew contacted Serkin to say the sale to Type 1 was off, Serkin wrote in the affidavit.

Soon after, Serkin received another letter from Andrew reversing the instruction to pay rent to Type I, once again asserting that the rent be paid to Democracy Builders.

Meanwhile, Type I’s founder Adrian Stein has disputed Democracy Builder’s claim on the Marlboro Campus.

When Serkin filed his affidavit, he said that Type I’s status with the Secretary of State’s office was listed as terminated.

According to public records, the registered agent for the corporation — Daniel Richardson Esq. of Montpelier — resigned on Feb. 16. The LLC’s corporate status was set to “terminate” on March 30.

The status is once again active, with a Burlington-based law firm, Sheehey Furlong & Behm Professional Corporation, as the new agent. The corporate address has been changed from the Marlboro campus to an address in Ontario.

In his affidavit, Serkin expressed concern that with Andrew’s arrest in April on federal charges and questions about Type I’s business filing status with the Vermont Secretary of State, that maybe neither entity would maintain the campus.

“There is the possibility that no alleged owner of the Campus will have sufficient funds or interest in properly maintaining the Campus to the extent required under the lease, including meeting the $1,000,000 annual operating costs,” Serkin stated in his affidavit. “Proper maintenance of the Campus is necessary to preserve the reputation of the Marlboro Music Festival.”

Potter wrote in an email that Marlboro Music recently completed the Jerome and Celia Bertin Reich Building. The building houses rehearsal space, a music library, offices, and an 18-room residence hall.

According to Marlboro Music’s website, the project, estimated at $12.7 million, was made possible with a gift from the Reichs, as well as the Dunard Fund USA and other individual donors.

An email to Serkin requesting additional information about the ownership dispute was not answered by press time.

Potter politely responded in a follow-up email that, “at the advice of counsel, I must decline further comment on campus matters at present.”

Recovering from the pandemic economy

Though Vermont Gov. Phil Scott lifted the state’s pandemic restrictions on gatherings last month, Marlboro Music has decided to practice social distancing at its concerts.

The audience size will be capped at 175, compared to the full capacity of 642, according to Potter.

They also shortened the concerts, which will run between 75 and 85 minutes, with no intermission, Potter added.

In its response to the COVID-19 public health crisis by closing gathering spaces such as performance venues and restaurants, the state helped slow the virus’ spread, but the closure also devastated these industries [see sidebar].

The pandemic did not spare Marlboro Music. Ticket sales, however, are a small part of the school’s $3.4 million budget, according to Potter.

“Each year we must raise about $500,000 to $600,000 in contributions to make ends meet,” he added. “Thanks to PPP [federal Paycheck Protection Program] support and the generosity of our friends and patrons — many of whom contributed the cost of their tickets last season rather than requesting refunds — we were able to balance our budget this past year.”

However, Marlboro Music does have concerns about this year.

“We are selling many fewer tickets, while incurring the costs of our extensive Covid protocols and returning to a full educational season, and we are hoping for the continuation of that generosity,” Potter said.

Marlboro Music also supported its students as much as it could last year.

“As you know, many [musicians] were without income throughout much of the pandemic, and we felt it was incumbent that we support them to the fullest possible extent,” Potter wrote. “To this end, last summer, we created an Artist Assistance Fund, with the support of many friends and audience members, that allowed us to provide stipends for our musicians even though we were not able to hold our season.”

Open rehearsals

Potter said the weekend concerts are already sold out, but the community is welcome to attend the open rehearsals.

These rehearsals begin the week of July 11 and are free, with no registration required. The rehearsal schedule is posted at the start of each week at marlboromusic.org/concerts/open-rehearsals.

Marlboro Music requires audience members to wear masks inside the concert hall. The school asks that only people who are fully vaccinated attend the rehearsals.

For additional information, visit marlboromusic.org.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #620 (Wednesday, July 7, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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