Brooks House (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer file photo)
Brooks House (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer file photo)
Friday October 26, 2012

BRATTLEBORO -- It's been almost 10 months since Gov. Peter Shumlin shocked Brattleboro, and the rest of the state, when he said in his budget address that he wanted to open a new downtown campus for Community College of Vermont and Vermont Technical College.

Shumlin had not leaked details of his plan and everyone from Martha O' Connor, who lives in Brattleboro and who sits on the State College Board, to college officials themselves did not know about the surprise announcement.

The plan has been on the fast track ever since, with the Legislature committing about $2 million to the plan during the 2012 session and a series of meetings and site visits that were held in the spring and summer to move the proposal forward.

On Thursday the Vermont State College Board of Trustees made it official by unanimously voting to move CCV and VTech to the Brooks House.

"It was passed unanimously so everything is a go," said O'Connor, who was appointed by Shumlin to lead the site committee which worked on the project in Brattleboro. "The full board approved the plan and there were no changes, so that should be it."

Thursday's meeting was held on the Randolph campus of Vermont Technical College.

Last week the college board's finance and facilities committee approved the plan, which included a recommendation to the full board to vote in favor of the Brooks House proposal. Even though the committee vote marked an important milestone in the project, the proposal needed the approval of the full board, which accepted the committee's recommendation at around 5 p.m. Thursday.

The State College Board and the presumed owners of the Brooks House will now work out details of the lease arrangement, which is expected to include a 20-year agreement with the colleges paying $250,000 annually to use about 18,000 square feet of the historic downtown building.

The Brooks House has been vacant since a fire in April 2011 caused significant damage to the structure.

Developers said they had alternative plans in case the college chose another location, but with the vote Thursday, they will now continue pushing the plan forward, with the hopes of occupying the Brooks House by the end of 2013.

Their plans include building market rate one- and two- bedroom apartments, office space, retail shops and restaurants, as well as all of the classrooms, offices and the library for the two colleges.

Vermont State College Chancellor Tim Donovan was in Brattleboro this week to speak at the annual meeting of Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation. Community College of Vermont currently has its classes and offices at a building off of Putney Road, while Vermont Technical College has classes at the Vermont Agriculture and Business Education Center.

Donovan said that while the colleges will have more space at the Brooks House, plans are to improve and enlarge the schools' laboratories and studios, and not necessarily increase the number of classes offered.

Still, Donovan said the move will improve the colleges' presence in the community and he said the move will also have impacts that will be felt across the state.

Too many high school graduates fail to move on to post-secondary schools and Donovan said a robust community college in downtown Brattleboro will open those doors to families who might not think they can afford the experience.

Donovan also said businesses across the state are struggling to fill some high tech positions and having modern labs for VTech and CCV will make it easier to train the people to fill those jobs.

The two colleges can offer new programs as the needs for Vermont businesses change, Donovan said.

He points to a report that came out 10 years that predicted a nursing shortage in Vermont. The State College system reacted to the report by offering more nursing programs and the number of graduates from the program has tripled since then.

"By being downtown we are looking forward to working closely with the local business community to find out what they need," he said. "This is a partnership and we expect business leaders to work with us and tell us what they need."

Donovan said the new downtown college campus can become a similar model for training Vermonters to have the skills they need for the businesses that struggle to find qualified candidates for important positions.

"From the time the Governor made his surprise announcement a lot of people worked together to make this happen," he said. "It came together because people leveraged the resources to make something happen that they wanted to happen. But it does not start and stop with the Brooks House. We are hoping this will be a foundation we can build on."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at hwtisman@reformer.com or at 802-254-2311 ext. 279.