Community Forum: On the college’s offer to the town

This week’s writer is Ron Liebowitz, president of Middlebury College.
Last year several members of the Middlebury selectboard approached the college with a straightforward proposal: Would we join forces with the town to help realize its long-held desire to replace the aging municipal building and gymnasium?
There was ample precedent for the request. Six years ago Middlebury College committed to pay nearly $9 million of the $16 million total cost of the Cross Street Bridge — a vital infrastructure project that contributed to the convenience and safety of town residents. Recently we contributed 40 percent of the funds needed to hire a business development director for the town; his mission over the long term is to recruit and retain high-quality jobs. Unknown to many, the college is also the largest taxpayer in the town, and, beyond the taxes, contributes $250,000 annually to the town’s budget by way of a long-term agreement.
Since the start of my presidency 10 years ago, I have said that the futures of the town and the college are inextricably linked. Middlebury College cannot be the institution it aspires to be if the town is not thriving. In turn, the town benefits greatly from a vibrant and dynamic college. The college’s board of trustees, which approved our recent offer to the town, endorses this view, and I believe most Middlebury residents do as well.
In recent weeks I have watched in quiet frustration as some have tried to undermine the collaboration between the town and the college through a campaign of distortion, misinformation and innuendo. Along the way an honorable resident of our town, who has served the community with distinction, has been subjected to unnecessary attacks.
I accept that reasonable, well-meaning people may disagree about the municipal building/gymnasium plan now under discussion. That’s democracy. But as the adage often attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan goes, “People are entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts.”
So let me set the record straight on one important matter that a small but vocal group of individuals is attempting to use to distort the intentions behind the college’s offer to assist the town.
The most recent false assertion is that Middlebury College is participating in this partnership in order to appropriate town land, ultimately for private use. Moreover, those making this claim assert that the $4.5 million we are giving the town is merely an acquisition payment; that it is by no means a gift and therefore represents some kind of “land grab.” Nothing could be more wrong.
Similar land in downtown Middlebury available for commercial development has been valued by the Middlebury town lister at $1.4 million. But even the most eager developer would not pay a fraction of that price for the municipal building/gymnasium land, especially given the town and college’s agreed-upon restrictions should the project be approved: specifically that the college will maintain this land as a public park for 99 years, and even then, in 2113(!), the land could only be used for other purposes with the approval of town voters.
Only those with an axe to grind would call this a “land grab.” Most members of our community, I would hope, recognize this for what it is: a gift to the town that will make much easier the construction of a new municipal building and an energy-efficient, well-designed gym.
I should note that, during my 10 years as president of the college, I have often received calls from boards of trustees and presidents of other liberal arts colleges that are similarly situated in small, relatively isolated towns. They call to ask about what they call our “unique relationship” — they ask why and also how the college collaborates so much with the town, including providing significant financial support for large projects like the Town Hall Theater, the Volunteer Ambulance Association facility, ACTR, United Way, and the new bridge, in addition to making an annual gift to the town budget of $250,000. I simply repeat my mantra to each and every caller, earlier stated: “The fortunes of the town and college are inextricably linked.”
And that is why we answered the town’s request and offered $4.5 million to defray the costs of the project in exchange for a parcel of land that has virtually no monetary value to the college.
Ultimately, it is up to the people of Middlebury to decide if they want to accept this newest partnership. And if Middlebury’s citizens reject the plan, let’s hope it is not because they were influenced by acts of deception.

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