The Windham Foundation refocuses its mission
Editor's Note: This is the fourth and final installment of a series of stories on the past, present and future of the Windham Foundation.
BRATTLEBORO -- In a note to the directors of the Windham Foundation following the execution of his new will in 1970, Dean Mathey wrote "I want to protect the spirit of Grafton but at the same time I don't want to limit the scope of Windham's constructive charitable objectives which may well reach in many directions."
In 1963, Mathey established the foundation with proceeds from his investment banking career on Wall Street.
According to the articles of association filed with the Vermont Secretary of State's Office, the purpose of the foundation is "Doing general charitable works, including among other acts, the acquisition, maintenance and preservation of real and personal properties in rural or village areas of Vermont, in order to preserve existing charm and historic, native or unusual features of such areas, for the general benefit and improvement of the communities concerned ..."
Prior to its founding, Grafton, like many small towns in Vermont was struggling to find its way in the 20th century. Mathey came along and bought up properties in town, including what is now known as the Grafton Inn, the general store and many of the buildings in the heart of the village. He also established the Grafton Village Cheese Company, which became widely acclaimed for its aged cheddar products.
That infusion of cash and energy has helped Grafton to survive the 20th century, but the Windham Foundation has faced new challenges, especially following the crash on Wall Street in 2007, when its investment assets lost about 30 percent of their value. That on top of the star-crossed expansion of the Grafton Village Cheese Company with a new facility in Brattleboro caused current management to reevaluate and refocus the foundation's mission.
Nonetheless, said Bob Allen, who has been CEO and president of the Windham Foundation since 2011, "The town is far better off because of the presence of the foundation."
But Allen has been under fire recently from former employees, old associates of Dean Mathey and some residents of Grafton for some of the changes he has felt necessary to make to guarantee the foundation's survival for another 50 years. Those changes included reducing staffing levels at the Grafton Inn and replacing the previous innkeepers, Kathy Metelica and John Cray. In addition, the foundation refused to renew the contract of blacksmith Adam Howard, who was tasked two years ago with operating the Grafton Forge and offering educational workshops. Howard has been especially vocal about his criticism of Allen, but Howard himself is not without his critics.
Groundskeeper Greg Gott, who has worked for the foundation for 11 years, said Howard's perspectives "always have been, to me, quite one-sided and skewed."
Gott said he has no patience for Howard's "rants and complaints."
"What I recall most is his unwillingness to understand there are always, always, always two sides to consider," said Gott. "He chose to set up his life here and from what I understood, had a rather sweet deal including ridiculously low rents. Yet, like so many others, they take on some belief they are entitled to get whatever they want from the foundation and behave like 5-year-olds when they don't."
In a letter to the Reformer, Russell Record and his wife, Lisa, took exception to Howard's contention that it's impossible to run a self-sustaining business in Grafton.
The Records noted that the town has a number of self-sustaining businesses, including but not limited to: The Grafton Store, My Minds Design, Blake Hill Farms Preserves, Rushton Farm, Jud Hartman, Jamie Gregory Trucking, Ivor Stevens Grounds Maintenance, Arol Ward Excavating, Record Welding, Record Property Management, Grafton Garage, J & M Auto, Plummer's Sugar House and Saw Mill, Wright's Sugar House, Stoneman Masonry, Grafton Bakery, Hallock's Boarding, MJS Landscaping to name some.
"As far as we are concerned some of the best and brightest are still here," wrote the Records. "And many other employees (of the foundation) have come and gone; some willing and some not. Of course those who were let go or asked to leave are not happy about it; who would be?"
Lisa Record, who was at one time the chairwoman of the Grafton Selectboard, noted "As a member of this community and a past Selectboard member of this town I can tell you that the Windham Foundation has given a lot to this town."
Sandy Wood, who bought a share of the Grafton Market six years ago and is now the sole owner, admitted the last two years of operation have been tough.
But recently, the Windham Foundation, which owns the property, renovated the building and Wood restocked the inventory after speaking with regular customers about what they would like to see on the shelves.
She also opened a small seating area where people can sit down, access the Internet via WiFi, and sip coffee and munch on a snack.
Wood said she couldn't operate the market without the support of the foundation.
"They give me a very reasonable lease rate," she said, adding for the Windham Foundation, the Grafton Market is an important asset for the town.
"This is not just a store ... it's a community project," she said.
In a letter published by the Grafton News, Liz Bankowski, chairwoman of the foundation's board of trustees, said she, Bob Allen and other board members are well aware of the effect their decisions have on the town.
"Grafton is a place where everyone bumps into everyone else at Mack's Place, the Village Store, the Post Office. So when the Foundation eliminates or changes a job, we know it has significant impact. As painful as they are, such decisions cannot be avoided."
The 21st century has brought new challenges to the Windham Foundation, she told the Reformer.
"We need to change in ways we've never changed before," she said. "If we don't, there's no future for the foundation."
Jeff Lewis, the executive director of the Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, said Bob Allen has the energy, retail experience and business skill to help the foundation get back on track.
"He's doing the right thing, though some of the changes are harsh," said Lewis, adding that Allen is willing to stand behind his tough decisions. "He's a hands-on manager."
Gott, who has seen three different "regimes" in the head office in his 11 years at the Windham Foundation, said the work atmosphere has changed for the better in the past couple of years.
"I feel the employees, more than ever, have gelled into a team," he said. "Everyone pitches in and does what is necessary. We care about this thing; that was missing some years ago."
Gott said all the employees he knows are dedicated and proud to be a part of the Windham Foundation.
"This group of people works hard, we have nice benefits and we keep this thing going. That message seems to be getting missed by some."
Gott, who is 61, said he understands how some of the decisions that Allen has made have caused a stir in Grafton, but, said Gott, they've been necessary.
"Bob is doing what it takes to sustain the foundation and it's working."
Steven Griffiths, who works the front desk at the Grafton Inn, used to run the Inn at Saxtons River and the former Front Porch Cafe in Putney. He has been an employee at the Grafton Inn for the past 15 months and said he has seen the work environment change in positive ways in that time.
While he was quick to note he had nothing bad to say of Metelica's and Cray's management of the Inn, he credited much of that positive change to interim Innkeeper Angela Harford, who took over after the pair were let go (earlier this month, Don Bruce took over as innkeeper).
"She was wonderful," said Griffiths, but he admitted he wasn't immediately sold on Allen's management of the foundation when he came on board at the inn. It took him a short while to realize that Allen was the right man for the job, he said.
"He knows what he is doing. He solicits opinions from everyone and looks to the brightest person in the room."
Nonetheless, said Griffiths, Allen has had to make some truly hard decisions.
"I wouldn't want his job for all the money in the world."
Allen has handled the criticism of his actions with "incredible aplomb," he said.
"He's taken it on the chin with great dignity."
And because of Harford and Allen, for the first time in a long time, the inn is projected to turn a profit this year, said Griffiths.
Wendy Brewer, a member of the Grafton Village Cheese Company's sales team for seven years, left her job in early 2010 because she didn't like the direction it was going.
"The previous administration was trying to change our very specialized product, and I didn't agree with that," said Brewer.
But in August 2012, after working for an import cheese company, she came back to work for the cheese company.
"There were some very positive changes that allowed me to consider even coming back," said Brewer. "I felt the time was right."
One of those changes included the board's hiring of Bob Allen.
"I am very familiar with him and his success with the Vermont Country Store. I had direct contact with them as the key sales rep for that account."
She said reestablishing the brand of Grafton Cheese is very important to her.
"We are very revered, not only by other cheese makers and producers, but also by retailers and distributors, both locally and across the country," said Brewer. "We're getting back to our roots, who we really are as a company and paying attention to the customers who put us on the map, who we are beholden to and appreciative of."
Randy Lockerby, who's worked in the maintenance department at The Windham Foundation for 32 years, said he's seen a lot of changes over the years.
"Change is always challenging but in most cases positive," he said. "In my opinion, we are doing as much or more for the community than we've ever done. As far as the maintenance department goes, we are doing far more with less personnel than we've ever done and I believe we are able to do this because we have dedicated employees who work under caring, skilled leaders. I think it would benefit all involved to look forward, move on, and enjoy the future."
Allen said one thing that is not about to change is the foundation's charitable giving, though there might be some tweaks to some of the programs, such as its scholarship fund disbursement.
He told the Reformer that the foundation's grant program has not changed in at least the past 10 years, giving out $250,000 each year, even when its assets were devalued by the Wall Street crash.
Since 2008, 31 percent of that has gone to organizations in Windham County. That includes $25,000 to the West River Park in Brattleboro, $25,000 to the Grafton Congregational Church, $10,000 to the West River Trail and $75,000 to the Valley Cares assisted living project in Townshend.
And just this week, said Allen, the foundation gave the town of Grafton $50,000 for a project yet to be determined. The only stipulation, he said, is that it be used to benefit the town's residents and its visitors.
Editor's Note: To see all four parts of this series in their entirety, visit www.reformer.com.
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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