Can the Windham Foundation survive another 50 years?
Editor's note: This is the second of three stories on the Windham Foundation as it celebrates its 50th anniversary.
GRAFTON -- After 50 years of operation, has the Windham Foundation lost its way?
That's a question many people in Grafton have been asking since a number of people have left, or been asked to leave, the foundation's employment.
Those who are no longer employees of the foundation include the former innkeepers of the Grafton Inn, Kathy Metelica and John Cray, Vice President Dan Normandeau, President and CEO John Bramley, Grafton Village Cheese President Adam Muller and Blacksmith Adam Howard.
However, when contacted by the Reformer, the only person willing or able to talk about the reasons for termination was Howard. The others either didn't return phone calls or said they were bound by confidentiality agreements tied to severance packages.
"The big mistake was going to Brattleboro and opening the cheese plant," said Howard, who started as blacksmith of the Grafton Forge in 2010.
Bob Allen, the Windham Foundation's president and CEO since 2011, admitted the foundation got in over its head when it agreed to open the cheese plant in Brattleboro and not expand the existing facility in Grafton.
The Brattleboro plant, which cost about $8 million to build, has excess capacity that has never been met, said Liz Bankowski, the chairwoman of the foundation's board of trustees. Currently, that facility produces about 100,000 pounds of cheese a month, when it could be making 600,000 pounds.
"One of our challenges is growing into that capacity," said Allen, who was with the Vermont Country Store for nearly 25 years and had no plans to take on the challenges that the Windham Foundation was facing. Nonetheless, he gradually came around to the task, seeing the foundation's survival as a worthy endeavor deserving of his time.
"It's not been an easy two years," he said.
Allen has had to make a lot of "tough choices" that have not endeared him to many people in Grafton.
While Bankowski expressed her confidence in Allen's capacity to right the ship, in a letter to the Grafton News, a writer contended that "A surprising number of Grafton residents view (Bob Allen) as inept, aloof and incapable of performing the duties assigned to him by the board."
The letter writer also accused the board of being "out of touch with the realities of running a business." One Grafton resident told the Reformer the board is out of touch with Grafton in general because none of them actually lives in the town.
Howard, whose employment as the Grafton Forge's blacksmith was terminated as of May 2013, is definitely not one of Allen's fans.
"These people who were eliminated, they were the best and smartest people, and anybody who challenged (Bob Allen) or questioned him about the foundation's mission went out the door," Howard told the Reformer.
Howard said he was told his contract wouldn't be renewed because he wasn't able to make the forge self-sustaining. Previously, the foundation subsidized the forge's operation.
"You can't have a self-sustaining business in Grafton," maintained Howard. "There's not enough foot traffic."
The forge is not the only business that the foundation operates that is not self-sustaining. According to documents obtained by the Reformer, the Grafton Inn, which was formerly known as the Old Tavern at Grafton, has lost between $750,000 and $1 million a year for the past 10 years.
Almost all of the Windham Foundation's operations have been losing money, admitted Allen.
In a letter published in the Grafton News, Bankowski responded to some of the concerns over the foundation's financial future.
"The economic crisis and its aftermath coupled with population decline, especially in southern Vermont, the state's increasingly aging demographic, and nationally, vastly changed travel behavior create a challenging new social and economic environment," she wrote. "The Foundation is not sheltered from any of the circumstances that produce these tough realities. We have been at as much risk as others, perhaps more so."
In a letter submitted to the Reformer but never published, Howard wrote "While true that the Foundation is in dire straights owing to its own ineptitude and mismanagement, the real reason for my dismissal along with many others representing the Foundation's best and brightest, is that I/we requested that they remain faithful to their mission statement and questioned their spending priorities."
In the letter, Howard accused the foundation's board of skimming more than a quarter million dollars per annum in compensation while neglecting the foundation's educational mission and the well-being of its many employees.
The foundation's bylaws call for "reasonable compensation" to trustees, as well as reimbursement for "ordinary and reasonable expenses incurred ..." Bankowski maintained that Dean Mathey, who founded the Windham Foundation with a $25 million endowment in 1963, wanted his board members to be paid.
"He wanted people who were actively involved in the community and finance and he paid them."
And in response to financial pressures, trustee reimbursement has been reduced to $11,000 a year, said Bankowski, who receives an additional $3,000 a year as chairwoman.
Trustees are given a set amount of funds that they can distribute at their discretion. Totals ranged from $18,500 in 2002 to $63,000 in 2009. While some of those donations stayed local, in Brattleboro and Putney for example, none of the funds stayed in Grafton.
"The majority are pork barrel gifts to the distant hometowns of trustees which is money that should be spent supporting their mission in Grafton, which now, sadly has the appearance of a ghost town," wrote Howard in his letter.
Bankowski said anyone who is interested in learning where the trustees' donations go, or any other aspect of the foundation's finances, can easily find out, as all the records are public documents.
Editor's note: In Thursday's Reformer, we look at more of the challenges facing the Windham Foundation and what it is doing to address them. In the July 6-7 edition of the Reformer, we looked at the history of its founding in 1963.
Bob Audette can be reached at email@example.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.
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