Atop Potash Hill, new prospects

With new leadership comes a variety of options for former Marlboro College campus

MARLBORO — Twenty-nine months after an organization known as the Democracy Builders Fund purchased the campus of Marlboro College and commenced an ill-fated educational project known as Degrees of Freedom on the property, stability has returned to the scenic campus under the aegis of a newly formed nonprofit called Potash Hill, Inc.

Potash Hill, which acquired the real estate in September 2021 and takes its name from the hill that dominates the campus, is an offspring of Marlboro Music, the Philadelphia-based nonprofit that has been leasing space on the property for its world-renowned music festival since 1951.

The new owner has spent the last 12 months investigating possibilities for using its 560-acre campus. In a Sept. 15 press release, the organization announced the hiring of Brian Mooney, a Brattleboro resident who both studied and later taught at Marlboro College, to guide the Potash Hill project forward.

In the words of the release, he “will work to secure tenants and partners for the campus with a focus on artistic, cultural, educational, and environmental uses throughout the year."

After getting his bachelor's degree at Marlboro, Mooney, who will assume his new job in October, got a master's degree in writing at the University of Massachusetts. For the past 10 years, he has husbanded an enterprise that sells Storymatic, a noncompetitive card game of his invention in which the content of the cards drawn serves to inspire the game player's creative impulses.

He recently joined Christopher Serkin, president of Marlboro Music's board of trustees and a member of the Potash Hill board, to discuss in greater detail what may lie ahead for the campus on Marlboro's South Road.

Serkin mentioned Mooney's “deep connection to the property, to the community” as a crucial factor in hiring him, and as “a real head start in starting with us."

Over the past months, Serkin said, “Potash Hill has been really working on an investigation on what can be done with the campus. We've talked to over a hundred possible partners. We're not expecting to find a single turnkey tenant for the campus - we're more interested in smaller groups using parts of the campus."

The time has now come for more serious discussions with the leading candidates among those potential partners. The goal, in Serkin's words, is to nurture “a thriving community” atop the little hill.

“Just the number of decisions that have to be made about the campus on a daily if not weekly basis is staggering,” he said.

Two examples: “What buildings might need to be repurposed or modified? What improvements might be needed?” he said. “These just take a lot of work."

“Without someone like Brian it was going to be hard to move forward,” Serkin said.

Finding 'a sustainable model'

Serkin said “some kind of aspirational ideas” had emerged from all the preliminary discussions these past months, “but it all depends on whether there's a real business plan.”

Currently, he noted, “Marlboro Music is supporting the maintenance of the campus and the operations of the campus, and Marlboro Music has set aside some money to make sure that we have a runway for launching this campus.”

But the parent organization's purpose, of course, is music, not real estate management.

“Thanks to the generosity of supporters over the years, and anonymous philanthropic support to help us with this transitional period, we are able to cover the costs of the campus in the near term,” Serkin said. “Our endowment is not sufficient to support campus expenses in the long term and so it is important that we find a sustainable model.”

“It'll take some time” to develop that model, Mooney said. “I have a good understanding of the financial pressures that the campus creates for Marlboro Music. We need to find appropriate uses for the campus as soon as possible.”

Potash Hill has been in ongoing contact with “state and regional schools that have space needs,” Serkin said.

These schools are low-residency, predominantly online colleges don't have permanent campuses, or they are colleges with campuses for resident students that also enroll nonresident students who are difficult to accommodate when they gather occasionally for intensive in-person programs.

More generally, he mentioned the need “for makers and creators to exist and do their work in sort of a retreat space” - a description that fits the secluded Marlboro campus well.

A spectrum of activities

Potash Hill purchased the property as a means of resolving its ownership, which been clouded by a bizarre transaction between Democracy Builders and a Canadian high-tech entrepreneur: Marlboro Music simply didn't know to whom to pay it should pay its rent.

Having been established to hold the property, Potash Hill had its work cut out for it once the deal closed.

“It took us an astonishingly long time to clean out the inventory in the buildings,” Serkin recalled. “That was not a trivial undertaking."

“When Democracy Builders came in for their year on the campus, they really didn't do much work in terms of cleaning things out - lunches in refrigerators, chemicals in the science building, unfired ceramics in the studios,” he said.

In the subsequent months, however, the campus witnessed a spectrum of activities more along the lines of what one would expect.

The Marlboro Nordic Ski Club made extensive use of the property's 17 miles of trails last winter and, in the spring, filmmaker Jay Craven, a former Marlboro College professor, used the campus to shoot part of a movie on life in colonial Vermont.

In May, the campus hosted a Morris Ale, a traditional springtime gathering of devotees of Morris dancing, which originated in England; the celebration has been an annual event on the campus since 1976. (The second part of the event's name refers to the key role played by prodigious amounts of beer consumed at the progenitor English gatherings.)

And, in June, the eminent flutist Marina Piccinini came to Potash Hill to hold her annual master classes - a residential week of workshops, lectures, and concerts.

“We are allowing some uses of the campus, rent-free, for some local nonprofits and community purposes,” Serkin said.

The give-and-take between Potash Hill, Marlboro Music, the town of Marlboro, and many other parties constitutes a key element of future prospects.

“We are counting on - and grateful for - support from the community, the state, and elsewhere, including from former members of the Marlboro College community, to help us maintain this beautiful and historic campus, and to protect and preserve the lovely natural environment,” Serkin said.

Going forward, the mix of activities will, of course, continue to include the Marlboro Music Festival.

Serkin described as “marvelous” this summer's festival, which took place as the pandemic at last loosened its grip on all things cultural.

“One of the things that it's hard for people outside the arts to understand is what a couple of difficult years this has been for artists, during Covid,” he said.

This summer, by contrast, there was “a palpable joy in our music community in being back together.”

What lies ahead for the campus is impossible to characterize beyond stating that it will offer a cornucopia of culture. But that elusiveness of definition is nothing new.

“My grandfather was fond of saying, 'We're neither a school nor a festival,'” Serkin said, referring to the eminent pianist Rudolf Serkin, who, with his colleagues, launched Marlboro Music in 1951 on a picturesque, away-from-it-all property that continues to ignite imagination.

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