BRATTLEBORO—In a speech outlining his budget priorities for the 2013 fiscal year to the Legislature last Thursday, Gov. Peter Shumlin proposed creating a consolidated Community College of Vermont/Vermont Technical Center academic center in downtown Brattleboro.
While the $4 million proposal is still in the preliminary stage and is subject to the approval of the Legislature, business leaders and property owners in town are excited about the possibilities.
Former Brattleboro Selectboard member Martha O’Connor was appointed by Shumlin to lead a search commission to find a suitable location for the center.
O’Connor, who has served on the Vermont State College Board of Trustees for more than 12 years, called Shumlin’s proposal “a wonderful opportunity for Brattleboro.”
She said on Monday that the state college system has recently opened downtown campuses in Winooski and Rutland, and that both towns have benefited.
“There’s no reason why Brattleboro can’t see the same,” she said.
But O’Connor cautioned that there is still a way to go.
“We still need to clarify the intent of the governor, and we need to find out exactly what the state colleges’ needs are,” she said.
O’Connor said that from an educational point of view, a new academic center to replace CCV’s current site on Landmark Hill would alleviate “a real space crunch up there,” she said.
“They want to offer more courses, and different courses,” O’Connor added. “They are getting more and more students, particularly the older, non-traditional students. If they had more space, I think they could expand upon what they offer here in Brattleboro.”
O’Connor said that she has already heard from several property owners with potential sites. One of the most obvious places for the proposed academic center is the largest commercial building on Main Street — the Brooks House.
The historic property was ravaged by fire last April and is in the process of being rebuilt. Its owner, Jonathan Chase, confirmed Monday that he has spoken with O’Connor.
“I’d be thrilled if the Brooks House could be the host, and for a number of reasons,” Chase wrote in an email. “Merging historic preservation, education, and economic development together would be a very worthy goal. This venture could not only be the ‘anchor tenant’ for the Brooks House, but for the entire downtown.”
Chase wrote that his team plans a formal meeting with O’Connor in the coming days.
One of Chase’s team members is Bob Stevens, of the design firm Stevens & Associates of Brattleboro.
While his firm has already produced a preliminary plan for rebuilding the Brooks House, Stevens said Monday that “the space is very flexible, and it’s not too late to make changes.”
Another team member is Tom Appel of New England Management Inc. of Brattleboro.
Appel, who has been handling the task of finding funding to complete the Brooks House project, said that he’s “still seeing how the funding puzzle fits together,” but that “the potential scope of this project would be exciting to see.”
He said that the support for rebuilding the Brooks House has been strong at the local, state, and federal levels.
But Appel added that the biggest obstacle to putting an academic center there would be determining if the building would be suitable for the state colleges, and if the colleges would want to be tenants or a landlord.
Appel also pointed to other potential sites in the downtown area. He said there was still space available at the Marlboro College Graduate Center on Vernon Street and at the Holstein Association building on Main Street, among other places.
O’Connor said that she is entering into the search process with an open mind. She added that she is more excited about seeing Brattleboro get the academic center than she is concerned about where in town it will be located.
“We keep hearing from businesses that we need to educate our workforce for the new jobs that are being developed,” she said.
“This will be a great opportunity to do that, and I’m impressed with the governor that he is making education such a priority,” O’Connor said. “I just hope the Legislature agrees with him.”