August 2, 2007
By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College may soon rent the former Eat Good Food restaurant space in the Battell Block on Middlebury’s Main Street for an as-yet-undefined venture that officials said would be designed to draw students into the downtown area and stimulate the local economy.
“We’re headed in the direction of some sort of agreement where the college would have control of the space while it sorts out its plans,” said Bruce Hiland, a co-owner of the Battell Block. “I’m optimistic.”
In late April Eat Good Food vacated its Battell Block space, which includes a 2,700-square-foot main floor and an 800-square-foot storage spot. Since then, Battell Block management has been reviewing proposals from prospective tenants, who have included restaurateurs and retailers.
But perhaps the most intriguing entry from Battell Block suitors has come from the college. While the institution has not yet completely defined what venture it would place in the space, college officials said they are committed to making the enterprise student-driven and one that would not take on other downtown retailers or restaurants.
Middlebury College President Ron Liebowitz and some of his colleagues shared their tentative vision for the Eat Good Food (EGF) space at a meeting with the downtown business community on July 20. Liebowitz summed up his post-meeting thoughts in a July 25 e-mail sent to many of those who attended.
“In thinking about the possibility of the college renting the EGF space, we are attracted by the idea of a venue in town, but close to campus, that would offer opportunities for more flexible uses and programming than standard campus spaces, and that would draw students into town more frequently,” Liebowitz wrote. “We also want to encourage student-driven initiatives, which we think can be done in partnership with town businesses to the benefit of the college, our students and the town.”
Liebowitz added the college would likely embrace some of the suggestions offered at the July 20 meeting. Some participants suggested the college survey students and form a committee to flesh out specific uses for the Battell Block space.
He reiterated that local merchants should not view the future business as an economic threat.
“We certainly expect that any decision we make about the EGF space would be made with sensitivity to existing businesses and would try to supplement, rather than compete directly with, what the town of Middlebury has to offer,” Liebowitz said.
Middlebury College Dean Timothy Spears met on July 27 with students now working on campus during the summer break. During a brainstorming session, the students outlined a list of potential uses for the Main Street storefront, including:
• A social space for area teens and students, where non-alcoholic beverages could be served.
• An ice cream shop.
• A new home for WRMC, the college’s radio station.
• An entertainment venue, with live bands.
• A dancing spot with DJ.
• A culinary education program.
Spears said the college “is giving serious consideration” to renting the Battell Block space for an initial six-month period, during which it would devise — with student and community input — a specific use for the spot.
Some downtown merchants have voiced concern about a perceived trend, during the past decade, of the college offering an increasing number of goods and services on campus. Among those relatively new on-campus services has been The Grille, located in McCullough Hall, a full-service eatery and nightspot.
Nancie Dunn, owner of the Sweet Cecily shop on Main Street, said the college should now be lauded for trying to get students actively involved in the downtown.
“I appreciate the sincerity of the college wanting to do something in the downtown and become more involved with the community,” Dunn said. “I also appreciate them not wanting to step on other businesses’ toes.”
Bruce Baker, a former downtown merchant and past president of the Middlebury Business Association (MBA), also praised the idea as one that could improve town-gown relations while helping local businesses.
“I think it’s probably the best news I’ve heard from the college in two decades,” he said.
Carolyn Dundon, co-owner of Tully & Marie’s restaurant, is also optimistic about the college’s intentions for the property.
“I think the college is trying to do something good,” Dundon said. “They seem to be willing to do something different (with the space).”
WAITING FOR DETAILS
Still, some merchants are viewing the college’s potential use of the Eat Good Food space with some trepidation — at least until the venture is fully outlined, according to MBA Coordinator Gail Freidin.
“I think it is hard for anyone to have an informed opinion and response at this time,” Freidin said.
“Everyone sees the dialogue the college wants to have with the community as a positive,” she added.
Spears noted the college’s interest in the downtown space tracks with a provision in the institution’s strategic plan that calls for more town-gown ventures.
“I think there are all kinds of exciting possibilities here,” Spears said. “As usual, the devil is in the details.”