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Future of Middlebury’s Community House is at stake

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury Community House trustees on May 6 will seek public input in solving an ongoing operating budget deficit that threatens to eat away at an endowment fund that is supposed to be reserved for major repairs to the historic downtown structure.
Built in 1816 across the street from the Congregational Church of Middlebury at the head of Main Street, the Middlebury Community House remains one of the best examples of post-colonial, Federal-style architecture left in town. It was originally built as a residence for Horatio Seymour and his family. Seymour’s great-granddaughter, Jessica Stewart Swift and her brother, Philip Battell Stewart, eventually inherited the property and gave it — and its furnishings — to “the people of Middlebury and surrounding area” back in 1938.
It has since been maintained by trustees as a community asset, rented out for meetings and special events, such as bridal showers and small weddings. It also hosts some free community events, such as the annual visit from Santa Claus in December and the children’s Teddy Bear Tea, which was held earlier this week.
But like most older homes, it is in constant need of maintenance and periodic major repairs to ensure it remains structurally sound. Major repairs on the Community House to-do list, according to trustees President Lynda Rheaume, include fixing and painting balustrades, painting the entire exterior of the structure, replacing shutters on many of the windows, and doing some interior foundation work. The fence that encircles the home also needs regular maintenance. Exterior painting alone is expected to cost upwards of $100,000, according to Rheaume.
In an ideal world, interest from the Community House endowment fund would cover the costs of repair spread over several years. But the economy has not (until recently) generated substantial interest on the endowment principal, a figure that trustees are reluctant to disclose at this time. Officials a few years ago placed the endowment at less than $400,000, a sum recently augmented by $200,000 thanks to the sale of around a third of an acre of land and the Community House cottage to the town to allow for expansion of the adjacent Middlebury Fire Department headquarters.
But the additional $200,000 does not mean the Community House has a secure financial future, trustees stressed. That’s because the house has been generating roughly $10,000 in rental income per year that is falling far short of the approximately $50,000 it costs each year to keep the structure heated, maintained and managed by a staff of three (very) part-time workers who manage housekeeping, accounting and coordination of events. So with no other options right now, trustees are having to cover the annual operating deficit with endowment money and donations.
“We felt that if we didn’t correct this situation, we would spend out the endowment in less than 10 years,” said trustee G. Kenneth Perine, president of the National Bank of Middlebury. “We just didn’t think it was responsible to do that.”
Only 20 years ago, rental fees and endowment covered operating costs for the facility, according to Perine. Not so today.
“The costs of fuel oil, electricity, salaries — all those issues have built to a point where the revenues we have gained from this activity have not kept up with expenses,” said Perine, who added people now have more meeting location options in the Middlebury area than they did two decades ago.
Rental fees, to some extent based on donations, have on average been generating less than $100 per event, according to trustees.
“We try to be cognizant of what other places charge,” Perine said. “And this spot is not designed for certain meetings” given the lack of a large conference room. It is more suited to smaller, more intimate gatherings, trustees said.
BRAINSTORMING
Hence the sense of urgency with which Community House trustees are attacking the problem. They want to hear any and all ideas that citizens want to offer at the May 6 “brainstorming” meeting, to begin at 7 p.m. in the Ilsley Library meeting room. Ideas are likely to range from simply increasing the rental fees to selling the Community House to a business or organization with the proviso that its historic integrity be maintained. Selling the house would likely have to be cleared by the courts, noted Rheaume. Proceeds from the sale could be used to create a fund to benefit the citizens of Middlebury, Perine theorized, thereby honoring Swift’s and Stewart’s wishes.
“We are looking to the community to get some input,” Perine said. “Is there a need (for the Community House) out there that we are not aware of? A use of the house … that would be more applicable to today? And if we have to make some capital improvements to the property to support that use, we have to make sure there would be a good chance it would generate enough income to support itself and perhaps reasonable pay back to the endowment over a reasonable period of time.”
If the Community House is put to a more modern, intensive use, it could require that the facility is sprinklered and made handicap-accessible, Perine noted.
“Our intent is to continue to use it in the way Jessica Swift gave it to the people of the town,” Perine said, “We have asked what is the more important piece of that — is it helping the people of the town or preserving the building? We think that we would like to serve both of those ends. If we can find a use for the house that preserves the house but also fulfills Jessica’s desire that it be used by the community in a meaningful way, then we will have met the dual goals.”
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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