MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury Community House trustees want to hear from any individuals or businesses interested in leasing or even purchasing the historic downtown home, a venerable local asset that unfortunately remains financially unstable.
Built in 1816 across the street from the Congregational Church of Middlebury at 6 Main St., the Middlebury Community House remains one of the best examples of post-colonial, Federal-style architecture left in town. It was originally built as a residence for Horatio Seymour and his family. Seymour’s great-granddaughter, Jessica Stewart Swift and her brother, Philip Battell Stewart, eventually inherited the property and gave it — and its furnishings — to “the people of Middlebury and surrounding area” back in 1938.
The property was bequeathed with the conditions that it “benefit the young people in town in promoting their moral, mental and physical welfare”; provide a community meeting place for “social, recreational and educational betterment”; and be used for other charitable purposes. Managed by a board of trustees and a small part-time staff, the Community House has been rented for such activities as piano lessons, church services, weddings, receptions, art displays, meetings and special events, according to Trustee Ken Perine. But those rental events have not generated enough revenue for the nonprofit operation to cover the Community House’s annual overhead of $12,000, which reflects electricity, heat and minor repairs.
Trustees have reluctantly had to dip into the Community House’s dwindling endowment to mop up the red ink. Officials have wanted to reserve endowment assets for repairs and costly maintenance projects, such as exterior painting.
“Therefore, the board is interested in considering other uses of the Middlebury Community House that will offset the annual operating costs and provide some income for upkeep of the house,” Perine said.
Dozens of community members showed up at a meeting this past April to pitch alternative or additional uses for the Community House that could potentially boost its income. But most of those ideas — while well-intentioned — weren’t financially realistic, Perine explained, as they would have required a substantial up-front investment in upgrades to the building, such as interior sprinklering for fire protection.
“The (building) code assessment made it clear that certain uses really were off the table,” Perine said. “We took a step back and said, ‘What we really want to get from the public is some detailed proposals on the use of the house with someone else really driving the renovations and the details of a renovation, so the trustees would be in the position of accepting a proposal, allowing it to happen and not be actually involved in implementing it.’”
Perine acknowledged trustees are likely to be willing to work with a tenant on some renovations — such as making the property fully accessible to people with disabilities.
“The building has limitations because of its historic nature, and we have to balance the needs to make this a break-even proposition from an operational standpoint, against what are we going to be doing to the interior to the house,” Perine said. “Our dual goals are to preserve a nice, historic resource for the town and also fulfill the goals of Jessica Swift and Phil Stewart in meeting the needs of children in the area.”
So the board of trustees on Oct. 1 released a request for specific proposals for the property that could allow private tenancies in, or an outright purchase of, the property. The RFP states that trustees are open to “all scenarios,” including any of the following:
• The board maintains ownership of the building and grounds and leases a portion of the building to an entity or entities to cover annual operational costs.
• The board maintains ownership of the building and grounds and leases the entire structure to an entity with the potential of substantial renovation of the interior.
• The board sells the building and grounds and uses the proceeds to meet the goals outlined in the Swift/Stewart bequest.
Any person’s or organization’s proposal should include a statement of how the building would be used and a related 12-month budget; specifics on how much space (what rooms and floors) would be needed for the use; a list of capital improvements that would be necessary to carry out the proposed use and how those upgrades would be financed; the names of the people who would manage the proposed use; and a financial statement of the tenant/purchaser of the property.
Interested parties must submit four paper copies of their proposals by 5 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 31, to the Middlebury Community House at 6 Main St., along with an electronic version to Perine at [email protected].
“We’d like to have this sorted out by the end of the year,” Perine said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]