By Don Keelan
Over the last several years Vermont has witnessed the closing of five colleges, with several more on life-support or probation. Closed are Burlington College, The College of St. Joseph, Marlboro College, Green Mountain College and Southern Vermont College.
Collectively, the colleges’ estimated real estate value is nearly $60 million. However, when you see the sale price or possible sale price, the discounts are enormous.
And deep discounts aren’t the only issue; add into the fray the buyers’ personalities and backgrounds. Additionally, except for Burlington College and The College of St. Joseph, what will the closed campuses be used for?
A good example is the recent sale of Green Mountain College for $4.5 million, a price down from its 2016 appraisal of $20 million. The nearly 190-year-old college on 155 acres was sold to the former owner of Shoreham, Vermont’s WhistlePig Whiskey Company. Some readers may remember Raj P. Bhakta for his long appearance on Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice” or his controversy with his former WhistlePig board members. His plans for GMC might be to turn the school into a special agricultural college.
Rabbi Moshe Pearlstein of Lakewood, New Jersey’s Zinchron Chaim Inc., has been unable to stay out of the media in his quest to buy Southern Vermont College. The 371-acre, 12-building campus with an estimated value of over $9 million has Pearlstein’s company (summer camps for children from New Jersey and New York) looking to buy the property for about $3 million. His company sponsored two three-week camping sessions for 350 boys and then 350 girls at the College this summer (Zinchron Chaim, Inc. also hosted about 400 children at Rutland’s Holiday Inn).
Some Bennington residents and SVC alumni are working to have the Town of Bennington acquire the College, which has a reasonably new 16,000 square foot gym the town could use.
The sale of Burlington College to the Farrell Development Company of Burlington has so far been a huge success. The former $20 million home of the Burlington Catholic Diocese was sold to the College for $10 million in 2010. Then, the 32-acre campus, which fronts Lake Champlain, closed under the weight of debt it took on and was then sold to Farrell for under $10 million. Presently, a 700-unit sustainable-living housing project is underway.
The closing and subsequent sale of Burlington College was not without controversy. In this case, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ wife Jane Sanders was instrumental in acquiring the college from the Diocese.
The least controversial sale of a Vermont college is the closing of The College of Saint Joseph in Rutland, which was taken back by the mortgagee Heritage Family Credit Union. Aside from the campus gym being leased to the City of Rutland, the college sale was consummated with a New Jersey developer to build a 175-unit senior independent and assisted living housing on the campus, as reported by the Rutland Herald.
However, the controversy over another institution’s sale price and future use is still a hot topic in Marlboro. The recent sale of the 533-acre Marlboro College to Seth Andrew’s Democracy Builders Fund, a New York City charter school and non-profit organization, for $1.7 million, was described in C.B. Hall’s piece in the August Vermont Business Magazine as “a long, bruising and contentious process.”
When the closing was made public, the alumni association and residents of Marlboro were terribly upset. The pricing, far below the reported assessment of $4.5 million, was one issue. The other was the accusations of racism leveled at Seth Andrews by an ad hoc anonymous group, BlackNBrown at DP, which is affiliated with alumni of Democracy Builders’ 21 schools.
No wonder the sale of colleges is a hot market with sale prices so far-off their historical valuations and so many options for repurposing. Could there be a silver lining here that is being missed?
Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington, Vermont.