Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

The College’s Foray into Downtown Business

We’re in the midst of a recession that has made life tougher for virtually every downtown Middlebury business. Now Middlebury College has decided to double-down on its bet that it can turn 51 Main Street, a pivotal downtown business space, into a magical confluence of town and gown.

An anonymous donor gave the college a grant that reportedly requires the money to be used in the form of a space designed for intermingling of students and townies. That space was established last year in the form of nice bar and sort-of restaurant at 51 Main.

Now there’s growing resentment from downtown eateries. And 51 Main is proving to be a money pit for an institution that has already lost 20 percent of the value of its endowment. That loss has already led the college to close or plan to curtail hours at Rehearsals Café and the stylish, recently completed Atwood dining hall. Yet the downtown adventure continues.

With a PR disaster brewing over 51 Main, I’ve got to think that the college may be wishing the donor had instead required the college to go bury the money in a pile of manure, where at least it would have been usable compost.

The latest chapter in this year-long saga has the college announcing that it’s high time 51 Main generated a little cash flow. To that end, the creekside location in the west end of the Battell Building will expand its hours and offerings to offer hot drinks, pastries and other food during the daytime.

That puts it in direct competition with several existing businesses.

Since it opened in the first half of last year, 51 Main has been a late-afternoon and evening spot that offers drinks, bistro-type food, and the occasional jazz group. Little that competed directly with privately run downtown businesses, in other words.

But the college’s new plan for profitability means it will be vying for customers by offering the kinds of food and hot drinks that are already offered at least three nearby cafes: Sama’s, Otter Creek Bakery and Carol’s Hungry Mind.

It’s worth noting that all three of these places, and others, have already been doing a good job of providing a place where students and community can hang out together.

51 Main’s new offerings and hours exhibit a certain tone deafness on the part of the college, toward the town and its businesses. It suggests a kind of “We know better than you” attitude that the college generally does an admirable job of avoiding.

John Melanson, the intrepid owner of the distinctive Carol’s Hungry Mind Café, has managed to provide one of the gathering spots that the college desires and downtown Middlebury needs. But it hasn’t been easy to keep the doors open – it’s a tough business – and now Melanson is one of those facing direct competition from 51 Main. Here’s how he put it to the college paper:

“"Business downtown is so difficult, and to see somebody (the college) come in with deep pockets and set up this beautiful place, spend all this lavish amount of money and not open for months, hurts. I'm working 12-hour days, struggling to get by, not getting a paycheck and now I find out that they are going to take a part of my clientele."

Who knows, maybe soon we’ll be seeing this kind of news report:

[NOTE TO EDS: You may want to put the rest of this in itals rather than the lead quotation marks I’ve used at the top of each graf.]

“Middlebury College announced today that in its ongoing efforts to provide a place for those affiliated with the college to mix with the larger community, the college will be immediately annexing all of downtown Middlebury.

“We are now able to take dominion over the heart of Addison County,’ college administrators said in a statement. ‘Downtown Middlebury has placed a long and historic role in this region. But all things must end at some time, and we believe the time for downtown is now.”

“Old Chapel said that it has, thanks to an anonymous donor, purchased all of downtown Middlebury. ‘We figured we were already paying for a new bridge, got the police station moved to the other side of town, and were footing part of the bill for the town’s ongoing operations,” one college dean stated. ‘With all that investment, it was time to start getting our money’s worth.’

“The college announced immediate plans to replace all local cafes, restaurants and bars with Grille Annexes, in 14 locations ranging from Sama’s to Rosie’s and Fire & Ice. Greg’s Market will henceforth be called Ron’s Market, with the Shaw’s and Hannaford supermarkets being renamed Starr and Hadley.

“The college book store will now occupy the old Vermont Book Shop, with the Alpine Shop being renamed the Alpine Ski Team Shop. Middlebury Mountaineer will become new headquarters for the college’s Mountain Club, while the Marquis movie theater will regain its old moniker as The Campus.

“Financing for the purchase of downtown will be provided by the National Bank of Middlebury College.

“Administrators added that while the falls of Otter Creek initially formed the basis for the town itself, they are taking a close look at the role and location of the creek and falls.

“ ‘We are examining the feasibility of replacing Otter Creek with a more student-friendly waterway,’ one dean said. ‘Some students and their extremely rich parents have complained that the current creek and falls are too unruly for the near-perfection that is Club Midd.”

“To examine its options, the college has signed a $1 million contract with consultants from Disney World. They will begin work immediately on designing a less imposing waterfall under the Battell Bridge.

“As part of its new role, the college will move to close several businesses deemed to be undesirable. First on the list is Wild Mountain Thyme, where the smell of patchoulie and sandlewood incense emanating onto Main Street has been a sore point to the sensitive nostrils of college administers for years.”

GregDennisVt@yahoo.com

- End -

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