Winston Prouty Center takes closer look at Austine campus

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BRATTLEBORO — The Winston Prouty Center is moving ahead with its plan to possibly purchase the former Austine School.

The early education center has hired a project manager and is seeking out an engineering or architecture firm to evaluate the property to determine the feasibility of dividing the buildings into condominiums for other organizations to own.

Requests for proposals from firms interested in working with Winston Prouty are due on Aug. 11 and The Winston Prouty Center Board of Directors is meeting on August 17 to decide if they want to proceed, Executive Director Chloe Learey said.

"We have not run into barriers yet regarding the concept of creating condominiums, and we are working with Steve Horton to determine costs and feasibility," Learey said. "We hope to decide at the August Board meeting which direction to go."

The Winston Prouty Center opened in Brattleboro in 1969 as one of the first education centers in the country devoted exclusively to children with special needs.

In 2006 The Winston Prouty Center moved into the former Christian Heritage School near Living Memorial Park and today the school educates all children, and currently has about 40 students up to age six.

Earlier this year Winston Prouty announced that it was looking to raise about $2 million for a proposed expansion that would allow it to increase its capacity to about 62 children. The Development Review Board approved the plan, and the early education center was moving ahead with the proposed expansion.

The expansion would have forced the school to move off of its campus while construction was proceeding, and while the staff and board were looking at the Austine School as a possible site to relocate for a year, they began discussing the possibility of moving to Austine instead of expanding at their current site.

The Vermont Center for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, which included the Austine School, declared bankruptcy after years of declining enrollment and closed in September 2014.

Brattleboro Savings & Loan holds the mortgage and has been managing the property and renting out the vacant space.

The expansion at the current Winston Prouty site was put on hold in May and now Learey said the Board is trying to determine the conditions of the eight buildings on the 177-acre Austine Campus and what it would take to partition the property into condominiums so Winston Prouty and other organizations can own their shares of the property.

Part of the new study would tell the Winston Prouty Board which operating costs would be shared among the condo owners and what it would cost to divide up the buildings.

"It's a big project and we can't do it alone," Learey said. "We need to know what the operating costs would be. It ended up costing Austine too much to maintain the buildings and we don't want it to be an albatross for us, so we need to know if it will even work."

Learey said that while Winston Prouty has not yet begun serious negotiations with Brattleboro Savings & Loan, the plan at this point would be for Winston Prouty to purchase the entire Austine campus and then sell off portions of the buildings to other organizations.

High 5 Adventure Learning has been renting office space and land for its rope courses at the former Austine campus since 1991 and the group has supported the idea of dividing up the campus.

And earlier this year Groundworks Collaborative, the organization that was formed when Morningside Shelter and Brattleboro Area Drop In Center merged, said it was looking at the two vacant dormitories on the Austine campus as potential transitional housing for homeless individuals and families.

Learey stressed that the original proposal to renovate and expand Winston Prouty's current home is still on the table and the organization hopes to have a clearer direction following the Aug. 17 board meeting.

"It seems the right thing to do in so many ways. I can't imagine all of those buildings just sitting there empty," Learey said. "Right now there is a lot of community support for this plan and nobody has said it is a dumb idea."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be contacted at 802-254-2311 ext. 279.


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