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Colleges begin the journey to a downtown academic center

BRATTLEBORO—Plans to put a combined Community College of Vermont (CCV) and Vermont Technical College (VTC) academic center downtown have taken a big step forward.

Presidents of both institutions came to town to meet with Martha O’Connor, who is in charge of the search committee for finding a suitable site.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin has made a big commitment toward putting a CCV/VTC campus in downtown Brattleboro.

Shumlin convinced the Legislature to appropriate $1.5 million from the general fund and authorize another $500,000 in potential borrowing to pay for the project.

There is no price tag yet on the project. The state is still trying to figure out what it needs for space and whether it wants to lease or buy a site outright.

At a May 22 meeting with business and civic leaders at the Marina Restaurant, CCV president Joyce Judy said that now that there is funding, “we expect to move very aggressively” on the project.

“A downtown presence is incredibly necessary for us,” she added.

Judy said the school would need roughly 10,000 to 12,000 square feet of space, and that the two priorities are visibility and accessibility.

An ideal site, she said, would be an anchor for the downtown area, similar to other campuses that CCV has in city centers, and would have good access to parking and public transportation.

She said that in the short term plan, CCV will look at potential sites and come up with a proposal to present to the Vermont State College Board of Trustees by this fall.

Judy said that the current Brattleboro CCV location on Landmark Hill is too small and unable to offer the courses that other locations can.

Considering sites

The two locations that appear to be the front-runners for the campus are the Brooks House on Main Street and the former Sanel Auto Parts building on 47 Flat St., which was purchased earlier this year by Peter Johnson, the owner of Emerson’s Furniture on Elliot Street.

Judy, Vermont State College Chancellor Timothy Donovan, and Vermont Technical College president Philip Conroy took a tour of both sites on Tuesday.

Renovation work on the fire-ravaged Brooks House is set to begin soon under the leadership of Bob Stevens and Craig Miskovich, who formed the investment group Mesabi LLC to take on the job.

On Tuesday, Stevens talked up the Brooks House, built in 1871, as an option. He envisions the joint CCV/VTC effort as an anchor tenant for the site, and he touted the benefits of being in the most prominent building in downtown Brattleboro.

Stevens offered a floor plan where CCV would have some classroom space at the rear of the first floor facing the Harmony Lot, and the bulk of its classroom and administrative space on the second floor.

Street-level retail space would still be located on the Main Street side of the building. Housing is still slated for the upper floors of the Brooks House.

The Sanel building, also part of the downtown Brattleboro Historic District, was built around 1900.

The four-story brick building was a warehouse for DeWitt Grocery Co. from 1906 until 1950, when the company got out of the grocery business and became a beer and beverage distributor.

Sanel Auto Parts, which has had a retail location on the first floor of the building for decades, moved to a new store on Putney Road earlier this year.

Representatives from the state colleges also toured the Sanel building during a recent visit.

First investment in years

Donovan said he was excited about the Brattleboro project.

“This is the first investment by the state in new educational facilities in about 15 years,” he said. “Now that we have some state money behind us, we can come up with an economically viable plan.”

Donovan said the biggest reason for why education is so expensive at Vermont’s state colleges is that the state is near the bottom in support for higher education. Student tuition ends up funding nearly all the costs of running the state’s system.

“A project like this one is a good first step toward changing that,” he said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #153 (Wednesday, May 23, 2012).

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