College reopens debate on 51 Main
MIDDLEBURY — Administrators at Middlebury College have reopened the discussion about the fate of 51 Main at the Bridge, a college-owned restaurant and bar operating in downtown Middlebury.
51 Main hit the chopping block last year, when the college first began looking at serious budget cuts. Officials gave the lounge roughly a year to sink or swim, with the provision that the bar must show at least two consecutive months in the black to stay in operation.
Now, as of early November, college officials say the restaurant is very close to meeting its two-month break-even requirement. Vice President for Administration and Treasurer Patrick Norton said specific numbers about the bar’s revenue is confidential, but revenue has been increasing steadily.
“It’s no secret that we’ve been doing well, especially in this current economic situation,” said 51 Main manager Carl Roesch. “We provide a niche, especially in Middlebury, that people have been looking for for a long time.”
51 Main opened in the spring of 2008, but came under fire the following fall when the college’s Budget Oversight Committee recommended shutting down the establishment. In light of the economic downturn, the committee thought it wrong for the college to fund an establishment not core to its academic mission, and at the time the establishment was losing money to boot.
The restaurant and bar was funded by an anonymous donor, after a student task force studying social life on campus pushed for the creation of a space off campus that brought students and town residents together in a social setting.
The donor’s gift covered start-up costs for the bar, as well as its operating budget for four years. None of the bar’s funding comes from the college’s own operating budgeting, and the donor’s gift is restricted to use for the new enterprise.
Liebowitz, in the wake of the Budget Oversight Committee’s recommendation, stayed the move to shut down 51 Main immediately, and ultimately the final decision about whether or not to close the bar will fall to him. Earlier this month Liebowitz reopened the debate about 51 Main on his blog — http://blogs.middlebury.edu/rononmiddlebury — with the hope of gauging public reactions about the bar.
Since its inception, 51 Main has garnered plenty of criticism. Members of the town community voiced concern about the unfair competition that a college-owned establishment would add to the downtown business community, and several members of the faculty and staff have been, according to Liebowitz, “highly critical, arguing that running what they see as a nightclub is problematic, even unethical, in the face of budget cuts and reductions in staff positions through voluntary departures and attrition.”
But so far, responses to Liebowitz’s online call for opinions about 51 Main have been resoundingly positive. More than 50 individuals have commented on his blog post, with the vast majority calling for the college to keep the establishment open.
Before 51 Main, wrote senior David Small, “parties were confined to stuffy dorm rooms and sticky social houses.” Now, he said, “51 Main is a place where students can mingle with professors, townspeople, and their peers in a classy and refined environment.”
Students aren’t the only customers at the space, though. Roesch said that, from the get-go,51 Main has tried to be a place where a wide swath of the community feels comfortable, and he thinks the establishment has succeeded on that front.
Dean of the College Tim Spears agrees.
“The customer base is growing,” Spears said. “It’s really becoming a place where a lot of students from campus are mixing, and mixing with faculty and people from town.”
Concerns about unfair competition also seem to be dwindling, at least from the perspective of 51 Main’s employees.
“People come in and look at our menu and they realize that what we have on our menu isn’t offered anywhere else in town,” said daytime chef Lisa Northup.
Northup said the restaurant is building up a dedicated clientele of lunchtime followers, many of whom flock to the “quiche of the week.”
Roesch, too, argued that the bar isn’t detracting from downtown business so much as adding to it.
“We contribute to a vibrant downtown Middlebury,” Roesch said. “I’d rather have a business here than a black hole, and we bring students into town.”
To weigh in about 51 Main, head to Ron Liebowitz’s blog, or to read more comments about the establishment, visit http://blogs.middlebury.edu/rononmiddlebury.