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Bridging a Town-Gown Divide - With Money

Middlebury College invests in its downtown


Published April 1, 2009 at 7:55 a.m.

The relationship between the town of Middlebury and its eponymous college has entered a sort of “Pax Middleburiana,” with a friendlier town-gown ethos than has reigned in decades. The new mood has a lot to do with the largesse flowing from the college to the town, which has consisted of some big-ticket items and lots of smaller ones, not to mention an increased downtown presence.

What changed? Most observers point to Middlebury College President Ron Liebowitz, who took over the office in 2004. To be sure, some of the infrastructure supporting his good-neighbor policy predates him, but it was never as visible, or as costly, before.

Among the major items are the college’s commitment of $1 million to Porter Hospital and another million to the refurbished Town Hall Theater. Most significant, from town residents’ point of view, is the pledge of $9 million toward construction of a second bridge.

The list of investments goes on. Recently the college purchased — and agreed to pay $16,000 in annual taxes on — the Old Stone Mill building in Frog Hollow, which was vacant except for a restaurant on the first floor. It is also picking up half the cost of a full-time policeman and has paid off the bond for a new fire engine. Finally, students volunteer some 42,000 hours of service during the academic year. According to Middlebury College Public Affairs Director Sarah Ray, that’s equivalent to a 20-person full-time workforce.

All of this, town officials say, is very welcome.

John Tenny, chair of the Middlebury Selectboard, has been watching the town-gown interaction evolve since he joined the board in 1995. “The board has been studying ways to improve relations over the past two decades,” he says. “We’ve had monthly meetings with the college since the early years of the [John] McCardell administration. During that time,” Tenny continues, “we got our first gift agreement of $1 million over 10 years for general support. That has evolved into a trust fund for the town based on endowment revenues.”

Tenny agrees that lately the college has reached new levels of visibility and financial support. “I think John [McCardell] had the spirit, but the board hadn’t quite joined him,” he suggests. “Ron is working in a time when the board was unanimous in supporting the gift.”

Tenny is referring to that nine mil for the bridge. The town petitioned the college when it had exhausted all other funding possibilities, he explains, “and they said yes to the whole amount. I’m not sure we were expecting that.”

As for the Town Hall Theater, Executive Director Doug Anderson had struggled mightily over the past decade to raise funds to renovate the old Knights of Columbus Hall and turn it into a venue for plays, music and other community events. The building now also holds an art gallery and artists’ studios. Anderson has established a collaborative connection with Middlebury students and faculty, evidenced most recently in a joint town-gown production of Gypsy. Not surprisingly, he has nothing but praise for the college’s contribution.

“As far back as the founding of the college [in 1800], this was ‘the town’s college,’” says Anderson, an adjunct faculty member who teaches musical theater. In his view, it’s high time the town-gown divide of more recent times was laid to rest. “My goal is to provide great arts products,” Anderson says. “There’s a lively arts scene up the hill, and putting it here at Town Hall Theater makes it much more accessible to local people.”

Across Main Street and down the hill at Frog Hollow, the reclamation of the Old Stone Mill is seen as Liebowitz’s pet project. The building now offers studios to students who couldn’t find space on campus to carry out their projects. Current occupants include painters, photographers, musicians, a woodworker and a group recording oral histories.

This type of enterprise epitomizes Liebowitz’s goal of moving students off the hill and beyond their comfort zones. “Campus can’t provide everything these students want,” he says. Venues such as Old Stone Mill and 51 Main (see sidebar) invite students to “meet the town,” he suggests. “They open doors of opportunity.”

Since joining the geography faculty in 1984, Liebowitz says, he was bothered by the mistrustful tone of town-gown relations. “It was obvious to me that the health of the town depended on the health of the college and vice versa,” says the prez. “But I used to listen to constant complaints about the college, and about the ‘wealthy, privileged brats’ who go here.”

After Liebowitz took the helm, he started attending Middlebury Business Association meetings. “I said, ‘Give me one big idea of what the college can do for you.’”

The answer was already there: Town Hall Theater. “I’m a strong believer in the cost-benefit of that,” affirms Liebowitz. “The $1 million has a huge multiplier effect. I knew Doug and I trusted him. He agreed to provide internships, and it’s a good way for students to become involved downtown.”

Liebowitz acknowledges that he’s “taken a more engaging approach to the town” than did his predecessor. “At first, people were cautioning me to move slowly, to be careful,” he says. “But that hadn’t really worked before.”

Now that Middlebury’s Frog Hollow Crafts Gallery has closed its doors, the college is looking at the vacant building adjacent to the Old Stone Mill. One of his ideas is to help save the arts-education program still operated by the crafts nonprofit. “I like to look for opportunities,” says the college’s 16th president. “We’re always going to be the elephant in town … so we can’t worry about it. We just have to move ahead.”