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VPR seeks bargain rent for spot on Middlebury tower

MIDDLEBURY — Vermont Public Radio officials are hoping to reach a harmonious accord with Middlebury selectmen to get a transmitter placed on the Chipman Hill tower in order to establish a classical radio station to serve the county.
Brian Donahue, VPR’s chief financial officer and vice president for finance and operations, made a formal pitch to selectmen late last month. He explained that VPR is in the home-stretch of raising $346,000 to buy and install the necessary equipment that would be affixed to the Chipman Hill tower. This would establish 90.1 FM WOXM, which would broadcast classical music with a 1,000-watt signal.
Local devotees of “VPR Classical” had to dial in such music at other, less clear spots on the dial, such as 99.5 FM. But new construction has blocked the 99.5 FM signal, VPR officials noted.
“We have gotten incredible support from individuals in the Middlebury area,” Donahue said of the local following for VPR Classical. He noted former Middlebury College President John McCardell and his wide, Bonnie, have led local fund-raising efforts for the new VPR signal in Middlebury. Their efforts, combined with grants and business underwriting, have whittled down the fund-raising to within around $75,000 of the goal, according to Donahue.
“(The new signal) would allow us to serve Addison County more efficiently,” Donahue said. It would also increase to around 500,000 the number of people who would be able to receive VPR Classical statewide, he said.
VPR is eyeing a lone, 30-foot radio spot on the Chipman Hill tower, managed by Verizon, from which to transmit its signal. But VPR officials are hoping to not have to pay the current monthly lease rate for a radio placement on the tower — around $1,800.
A communications tower was first built on Chipman Hill around 30 years ago. The courts in 2003 ultimately OK’d the replacement of that initial tower with the more modern structure that stands there today. The structure provides free spots to several emergency response organizations, including the Middlebury police and fire departments, the Middlebury Volunteer Ambulance Association and Porter Hospital dispatch services, Middlebury Department of Public Works, and the Addison County Sheriff’s Department.
But other users — who must pay monthly fees ranging from $500 to $2,000 — include Central Vermont Public Service Corp., Rinker’s Paging, Unicel, NEXTEL, U.S. Cellular, Verizon Wireless and local radio stations like WFAD 1490 AM.
The Battell Trust receives rental income from those corporate users, amounting to around $70,000 each year. The town collects those funds and passes them to the trust, which may use them for maintenance of, and potential future additions to, the Battell Park and Chipman Hill lands. The Battell Trust last year agreed to donate enough tower revenues — around $70,000 — in a tough fiscal year to make a payment into Middlebury’s conservation fund that would otherwise have been shouldered by local taxpayers.
Donahue said the proposed tower fee in Middlebury is “quite a bit above what we are paying” at its 15 other installations across the state, including Mount Mansfield and Burke Mountain. He added he is preparing a list showing charges VPR is being assessed for its other tower placements.
Selectmen said they are open to negotiating a smaller monthly fee from VPR, but aren’t inclined to offer tower placement for free in exchange for VPR’s offer of ongoing on-air mention of the town of Middlebury.
“This is a public trust that we have,” Selectman Victor Nuovo said. “Fees not paid are monies not going into the town fund, so I feel very uneasy about this.”
Selectmen agreed to consider a compromise, given the proposed addition of a nonprofit amenity on a tower vacancy that is currently not generating revenue.
“In my mind, I could easily justify some lesser charge on that basis,” Selectman John Tenny said.
Board members also want to learn whether another radio station could share some of the 30 feet that is available on the tower.
“If you’re going to make that 30 feet available for public radio, I would like to think there would be other space in there for somebody that wants to pay at the same rate,” Selectman Don Keeler said.

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