By Chris Mays, Brattleboro Reformer. Published in the Brattleboro Reformer, March 29, 2020
BRATTLEBORO — A process intended to envision a sustainable future for the Winston Prouty campus ended with three major conclusions: No buildings or property should be sold off for at least two years, leasing rates should be increased to fair market value, and more efforts should be made to rent out space for events.
“I think having a roadmap makes all the difference,” said Chloe Learey, executive director of Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development.
The planning process “left us space to be thoughtful and intentional,” she said. She thanked the Thomas Thompson Trust for providing a $40,000 grant to have “this robust conversation.”
More than 20 task force members joined the approximately six-month effort, including local officials and individuals knowledgeable about real estate, energy and financial issues.
Winston Prouty could have come up with its own plan but having community involvement made for “a way more solid plan,” Learey said. She described the heavy participation in the process as “heartening.”
Learey said her group never intended to run the former Austine School for the Deaf campus alone after purchasing it in 2016. The planning process led to strategies for sustainability.
The goal is to eliminate half of the group’s deficit or about $200,000 in the first year, then another $100,000 the following year. The remaining $100,000 is anticipated to be covered by “exploring more long-term options that could generate revenue,” Learey said.
Learey recalled a lot of people involved in the effort thinking that energy efficiency measures would “save day.”
“No,” she said. “It will help. It’s a lot of taking steps mostly, I think, to increase revenue whether that’s looking at rental rates or increasing use of the gym or land and charging people for it.”
One energy project involves installing a heat pump air exchange unit in Croker Hall. That’s expected to pay for itself in a year.
Lisa Whitney’s job changed from director of operations to director of campus operations at Winston Prouty. Her job formerly involved looking at finances, human resources, information technology and facilities.
“It’s that facilities part and the finance part that got really big,” she said.
Learey said her group will hold off on selling buildings or property for the next two fiscal years, starting July 1. The idea may be revisited later on.
At first, selling off pieces of the campus seemed to be easiest thing to add money to the coffers. But upon exploration, taking rental revenue out the equation could make things less stable.
Whitney is tasked with looking at maximizing revenue streams. Cabins can be rented out, there’s potential for conference hosting and a functional kitchen could provide opportunities for a caterer or other group to step in.
Learey called the campus “its own community.” She estimated about 85 percent of the building space is occupied and most of the vacant space needs renovation. Recreational trails draw visitors, some of whom come on a daily basis.
Last year, Winston Prouty had a 50th year anniversary celebration at the campus. That prompted people to think about potentially hosting weddings on site, said Marty Cohn, public relations consultant. He noted the local economy will be stimulated if the campus becomes a destination.
Whitney reported seeing an increase in space use recently by outside groups. She attributes that, in part, to task force members spreading the word about the campus.
Having just sent some difficult emails about leasing rate increases at the time of the interview, Whitney said she received positive responses.
“Some of the tenants are really happy to make sure the whole campus is successful,” she said.
Learey said tenants aren’t just buying space; they’re “part of something special.”
With this scheduled to be the last winter for Hammond Dorm hosting Groundworks Collaborative’s seasonal overflow shelter on campus as Groundworks is building the future site on South Main Street, there are discussions about how the space will be used going forward. One idea is to have a group run a temporary housing program for women and children.
Brattleboro Planning Director Sue Fillion called the planning process “impressive.”
“The result is a short term strategic plan that we hope will stabilize the Winston Prouty Center and the campus,” she said in an email. “They really excelled at getting people with expert knowledge in the room.”
Fillion described the campus as “a highly visible and historic property in Brattleboro.”
“There are currently a cluster of important social service organizations and educational services that operate from the campus,” she said. “As we have seen from recent events, it is not easy to maintain a campus of this size. When asked to participate in campus planning, it felt like a really important project to be a part of. We want to help Winston Prouty be successful stewards of this property while maintaining their own critical mission.”
The campus has five buildings spanning about 130,000 square feet. Vermont Hall is home to Winston Prouty, the Austine Museum, VT Dinners, Six Red Marbles and more. Tenants at Holton Hall include Brattleboro Hearing Center, High 5 Adventure Learning Center, the Vermont Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Brattleboro Area Prevention Coalition, Health Care & Rehabilitative Services and more. Croker Hall houses The Garland School, the Inspire School for Autism, New England Center for Circus Arts, the Vermont Wilderness School and the Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center’s administrative offices. And Families First and Phoenix House lease buildings on campus.
Windham Regional Commission Executive Director Chris Campany described the campus as “an important piece of property stewarded by a community-focused organization.”
“It ostensibly connects the greater Canal Street neighborhood with the greater West Brattleboro neighborhood, and in conjunction with the Delta Campus, connects both to Algiers Village in Guilford,” he said. “Its future use should be planned carefully because of the opportunities it presents, and Winston-Prouty has been engaged in a very inclusive community process to do just that.”
Omega Optical is on Delta Campus, where plans to build five residential buildings have been approved by the state. David McManus, who handles planning and administration for Delta Vermont, anticipates two of the buildings will be constructed this year. He said Commonwealth Dairy purchased its lot and is no longer part of the Delta Campus.
Tracey John, general manager at Vermont Country Deli and president of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce, said she was “so impressed” with the planning process at Winston Prouty — not only with the organization but the community participation.
“We were from different worlds but our goal in that room was to come together and help come up with a solution for what, in my opinion, was a brilliant move by Prouty,” she said of the group’s decision to purchase the campus. “Prouty knew this was an asset worth investing in even if the numbers didn’t initially make sense. But, they also knew they couldn’t do it alone, thus this process of the task force. It was refreshing to know that they valued our opinions and took advice.”
The project is still a work in a progress, John said, “but one that I was proud to be a part of and one that I hope to continue working on with the folks at Winston Prouty.”
Reach staff writer Chris Mays at email@example.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.