'New era' for campus in the making

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BRATTLEBORO — Taking on the former Austine School for the Deaf campus had been about both getting a bigger space and preserving a valuable community resource for Winston Prouty Center for Child and Family Development.

Now, with the help of a $40,000 grant from Thomas Thompson Trust received last month, the organization is looking at ways to make the campus sustainable via a long-term

strategic plan.

"We've been very busy since that time, pulling together people and making a plan," said Chloe Learey, executive director at Winston Prouty. "We've recruited 22 people from the community to be on the planning task force."

Task force members were scheduled to meet Friday to discuss the makeup of the campus and how it may be structured moving forward. Learey described their voluntary efforts as "really heartening."

"It's our hope to bring it into a new era that's really connected to the community," she said of the campus.

The 108-acre property was purchased for about $2.7 million in 2016. The planning process is likely to include a strategy with "a mix of campus condominium association members, limited rental space and potentially new development," according to an overview of the task force's planning process. It also will identify needs in the community, especially "those being addressed by nonprofit and mission-driven organizations."

One of the goals is to have Winston Prouty focus less on being a landlord or property manager. As an organization, its mission is "to provide inclusive education and family support to promote the success of children and families."

Winston Prouty has been celebrating five decades of service to the community this year. Its early learning center hosts 68 children from 6 weeks old to 5 years old, according to a presentation prepared for task force members. Other programs focus on prevention, intervention, child care and family support.

The campus has five buildings spanning 130,000 square feet. Austine opened as a school for the deaf in 1914 but closed in 2014 as a result of bankruptcy and declining enrollment, according to the presentation.

Community organizations and coalitions use the campus for gatherings. Offices, hiking trails, short-term cabin rentals and recreational activities are available.

Vermont Hall is home to Winston Prouty, the Austine Museum, VT Dinners, Six Red Marbles and more. Tenants at Holton Hall include Brattleboro Hearing Center, High 5 Adventure Learning Center, the Vermont Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Brattleboro Area Prevention Coalition, Health Care & Rehabilitative Services and more. Croker Hall houses The Garland School, the Inspire School for Autism, New England Center for Circus Arts, the Vermont Wilderness School and the Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center's administrative offices.

Hammond Dorm has served as a temporary location for Groundworks' Seasonal Overflow Shelter since 2012. The group expects to have its own space for the shelter by 2020-21 winter season as it is developing property next to its current drop-in center.

Families First and Phoenix House have purchase options for buildings they lease on the land.

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Three lots — in parcels of 30.7 acres, 17.8 acres and 89.5 acres — are undeveloped. Subdivision plans "could be considered," according to the presentation.

Infrastructure challenges are said to include deferred maintenance, needed renovations, insufficient parking, and aging and complex systems.

"It's an old campus, and yes the elevator does break," said Learey. "And elevators are expensive."

She said electric bills are more than $100,000 each year.

Her group is reporting an annual $200,000 to $300,000 deficit since taking over the campus. Reserve funds have been used to absorb those losses.

"Clearly, that's not sustainable," Learey said. "Our goal is to cut our deficit in half by next year."

In two years, the hope is to have a level budget — something Learey considers "also very ambitious" but project manager Maggie Foley believes is realistic as she looks at the planning process as a proactive way to address different issues.

"It's just a great gift to have a foundation like the Thompson Trust to say, 'Yeah, that does seem really worthwhile and we're going to help you get there,'" said Learey.

The public is invited to participate in the planning process, Learey said, "because we've always thought of this as a community asset." She counted more than 100 people invited to brainstorm ideas at an upcoming meeting.

"You've set a strong foundation," Foley told Learey. "Now, it's time to grow."

Foley said the process is intended to get expertise not necessarily available at Winston Prouty. Sub groups of the task force will look at community integration, real estate, infrastructure and finance with experts from those fields.

The groups are expected to meet for about 25 hours in October and November, then develop a draft strategic plan by the end of December. The hope is to start implementing it by early next year.

"We're not sure how it's all going to go so part of it will be an organic process," Learey said. "We've created the structure. We're ambitious about the timeline."

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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