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Faced with need to trim expenses, Middlebury College reassesses future of 51 Main

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By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College’s student/community activity spot at 51 Main St. may become a casualty of cost cutting moves the institution is having to consider in light of the sagging economy.

The college opened “51 Main At the Bridge” last spring as a downtown venue in which students and area residents could enjoy light food, drink and occasional live entertainment from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m., Thursday through Saturday. It is located in one of Main Street’s largest and most attractive storefronts in the historic Battell Block, in a spot most recently occupied by the Eat Good Food restaurant.

By most accounts, 51 Main has been a success and a good draw for students seeking a change of scenery from the campus. The student-directed business was established through a gift earmarked for support of “student social life.”

But college officials are now reassessing the future of 51 Main — along with a host of other programs — in light of a plunging stock market that has taken its toll on the institution’s endowment and the ability of its supporters to give donations.

“We are going through a fairly comprehensive process of finding savings at the college,” said Middlebury College Acting Provost Tim Spears.

To that end, all sectors of college administration are working to trim their operating costs (travel, meals, etc.) by 5 percent. Spears added the college’s Budget Oversight Committee — of which he is a member — will be looking at broader cuts that will ultimately require the approval of President Ron Liebowitz.

The college has already instituted a hiring freeze, has limited the work of consultants and contractors, and will cut back on construction projects.

“Everything is on the table in these discussions,” Spears said, adding that personnel cuts would be “one of the last levers we would pull.”

Meanwhile, college officials are taking stock of programs such as 51 Main. Spears recently invited members of the college community to weigh in on the perceived value of 51 Main and whether it should be maintained even during turbulent financial times.

“51 Main appears to be filling a niche, but given the current fiscal situation, the establishment may be a program that the college should reassess,” Spears wrote in his blog at http://deanofthecollege.wordpress.com. “Although revenues are on the rise, the establishment does operate at a deficit, which is covered by a gift that the college received from a donor.”

Spears noted the college could go to the donor and ask that the gift be re-directed to other purposes — such as general budget relief.

“President Liebowitz and I are willing to pursue this option, but not without first hearing from students,” Spears wrote. “Is 51 Main succeeding? Should the college support its continued development?”

As of Tuesday, 27 people had posted comments in response to Spears’ blog invitation. The overwhelming majority of the comments were in favor of continuing 51 Main.

“As a recent graduate, I think 51 Main is the best thing that has happened to the town’s social scene in a long time, and I wish it had existed when I was a student,” reads one of the posts, by a person using the pseudonym “townie-alum.” “And by the way, we townies love to see students, faculty, staff, and townspeople mix as they do in 51 Main — in a relaxed and friendly manner. Where else does that happen?”

Spears said the college has a year-to-year lease with the Battell Block owners that expires next March. He said he believes the college will have to let the building owners know soon if it plans to end its tenancy in March.

Bruce Hiland, co-owner of the Battell Block, said as of Monday he had not heard any indication the college planned to give up its 51 Main lease come March.

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