Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., talks with Rocko Andrews and Harriet Gussin at the Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development in Brattleboro during a tour of the Winston Prouty campus to talk about early childhood education on Friday, Jan. 27, 2023.

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BRATTLEBORO — During a visit to the Winston Prouty Center, Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., learned about the effectiveness of the COVID-19 Paycheck Protection Program.

“Thankfully, with the PPP money that came out, we had 22 employees and when we opened our doors and started working again, we still had 22,” said Todd Brown, director of High 5 Adventure Learning Center in Holton Hall.

Since returning from the COVID lockdown, said Brown, High 5 has actually hired more employees and hopes to add even more.

High 5, a non-profit educational organization that provides educational experiences for all ages that develop a sense of connection and community through adventure programs, moved to what was then the campus of Austine School of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in 1991.

Since then, High 5 has built adventure courses around the country and consulted with thousands of professionals in the field of adventure learning.

Welch was in Brattleboro to learn about the mission of the Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development and its proposal to bring 300 housing units to its 180-acre campus.

Brown said affordable housing in Brattleboro is crucial to High 5 so it can expand its business.

“We’ve hired seven staff in the last few months,” he said. “Luckily, a good chunk of them are local, but the few that have had to move in have struggled to find housing. Having on-campus housing would be very positive.”

Chloe Leary, executive director of Winston Prouty, said the PPP loans were “definitely a lifesaver” for many businesses in Vermont. She said the employee retention tax credit, a fully refundable tax credit to employers equal to 50 percent of qualified wages paid to employees March 2020 through Jan. 2021, will also help businesses.

Welch said the PPP and the tax credit are examples of how a government can work effectively to support its citizens in tough times.

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“There’s nothing more important to me than talking to real Vermonters who are affected by real policy,” he said. “It was really heartening to hear that those PPP loans that were forgiven made all the difference in the world.”

Welch also got an earful during a stop at the Brattleboro Hearing Center, also located in Holton Hall on the campus. He asked about new legislation that allows people to purchase hearing aids over the counter.

Kim Messer, one of three co-owners, said it’s good that people can get less expensive hearing aids, but it’s also important that people consult with certified audiologists.

“People are going to look to someone that has a more professional capability who is able to provide a true hearing test a real fitting and verification of those hearing aids,” she said.

She said if Welch wanted to do something to help professional hearing centers it would be to revise Medicare Part C, or Medicare Advantage, which she described as “a hot mess.” Part C plans are offered by Medicare-approved private companies that must follow rules set by Medicare, which itself doesn’t pay for hearing aids.

“We’re all about making hearing aids more affordable, but it also has to be equitable across states and making sure that people can use their benefit wherever they choose to go,” she said.

Leary spoke about the mission of the Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development and how they became a landlord, now with 45 tenants, when they purchased the campus after the Austine School closed.

Since then, Winston Prouty has been exploring ways to make the campus more fiscally sustainable, she said.

“We had a task force of 25 people from the community think about a whole bunch of different things,” she said.

The conclusion they came to is the best use of the campus would be to develop it for more housing for people in the region.

“It’s really housing for everybody,” she said. “Anybody in our community should be able to live here.”

Bob Audette can be contacted at raudette@reformer.com.