Foundation given tennis facility as a gift

MIDDLEBURY — One of the state’s premier philanthropic foundations on Wednesday announced that it will take ownership of the Middlebury Indoor Tennis facility.
Officials at the Vermont Community Foundation in Middlebury said the gift by MIT founders David and Eleanor Ignat will enable the VCF to further its goal of serving the community — in particular by expanding efforts to improve the physical health of individuals in the community.
“One of our goals is to encourage more physical activity for everybody,” said Stuart Comstock-Gay, president and CEO of VCF.
Technically, the MIT facility, located off Wilson Road near G. Stone Motors, has been donated to the Addison Community Athletics Foundation, or ACAF, a supporting organization of the Vermont Community Foundation. ACAF will own, operate and support the facility as a nonprofit organization. The facility includes three courts, locker rooms with showers, a pro shop and a social area with kitchen facilities and a room for meetings. In addition to providing court time for club members and arranging tournaments, MIT already lets some college and high school students play there.
The Ignats, who opened MIT in 2001, have volunteered to continue running the day-to-day operations of the business. They serve as president and vice president of the ACAF board of directors. The facility’s name, hours, court times, fees and staff will remain the same.
The foundation plans to hire a new program coordinator to oversee the existing business and expand operations to match the ACAF’s mission of encouraging more physical activity. As VCF officials pointed out, research shows that tennis and other physical activity have a positive effect on emotional and mental well-being.
One thing the new program coordinator will do is reach out to schools, child care providers such as the Addison County Parent/Child Center and the Mary Johnson Children’s Center, and town recreation program directors to increase the range of people who use MIT, according to Jen Peterson, VCF’s vice president for Program and Grants. Beyond tennis, she and Comstock-Gay said they can foresee other physical activities in the facility such at indoor soccer and indoor playtime for youngsters.
Another expanded use could involve running a learning kitchen where people could take classes on healthy cooking.
“Our interest is in having it be as accessible as possible,” Peterson said.
“I can’t imagine this succeeding without close collaboration with schools, the town and others who provider services to children and seniors,” Comstock-Gay said.
The Ignats approach the VCF in 2011 with the idea of giving the facility to the foundation. The VCF then created the ACAF in 2012 as a legal entity to take formal ownership of MIT. It took a few years to iron out all the details, Comstock-Gay said, and the transaction formally closed last week.
Peterson said she could not put an exact figure on the value of the gift because the final appraisal won’t be completed for a few months. She said she would release that number when it is available.
Comstock-Gay said this was not the biggest gift the VCF had ever received, but it was among the biggest — “It’s in the top tier,” he said.
VCF officials said the Ignats declined to speak publicly about their gift, but Comstock-Gay said they clearly cared about keeping the indoor tennis courts available to others as they themselves were slowed down by age.
“They were thinking about sustainability and how do we keep this facility open,” he said.
“They care a lot about the community,” Peterson added.
The Addison Community Athletics Foundation is one of the VCF’s four “supporting organizations,” which aim to make giving more meaningful and effective. The other three are:
•  The High Meadows Fund, which addresses sustainability of agriculture, particularly in the context of climate change.
•  The Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children, which helps build happy and healthy children and families by working to reduce obstacles toward that goal.
•  The J. Warren and Lois McClure Foundation to improve access to higher education.
For its part, the ACAF was established to promote access to, education about, and awareness of athletics and healthy behaviors in greater Addison County.
Officials acknowledged that this undertaking would require different skills than VCF traditionally employs.
“This is a big step for us,” Peterson said.
Comstock-Gay emphasized that taking on new and different challenges to serve the community was something that organizations like VCF do as a matter of course.
“People come to us with pretty much everything,” he said. “Community foundations are designed to serve the needs of the community and every community is different so it is not that unusual in the world of community foundations for some of them to take on something like this.”
In addition to furthering the ACAF’s goals of improving physical health in the community, the facility has to sustain itself, Comstock-Gay said. It will get considerable help from the Ignats, he pointed out.
Overall, the VCF officials were excited by the venture into new territory.
 “When we seen an opportunity to do good things, we go for it,” Comstock-Gay said.
“…In a big way,” Peterson added.

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