College to sell former courthouse to tech incubator

MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury College will sell the former Addison County Courthouse at 5 Court St. to the Vermont Center for Emerging Technologies. The organization, known as VCET, will use a portion of the building as a local headquarters to further its mission of helping entrepreneurs establish new high-tech businesses in the state.

Plans call for the VCET to buy the old courthouse for $2 million, then lease back most of the structure to Middlebury College. That means the building will continue to house staff from Middlebury’s Office of College Advancement — the institution’s fund-raising operation — which also occupies the Painter House, located nearby on Court Street.

VCET is a statewide technology incubator with the mission of increasing technology startups and accelerating next-generation job creation. The organization offers, among other things, substantive business mentoring with traditional incubator services — such as low-cost, flexible office space, shared resources, capital, networking and training.

“VCET is Vermont’s leading technology incubation organization, and its programs have supported the development and growth of close to 30 businesses,” Middlebury College President Ronald D. Liebowitz said in a written statement on the transaction. “Middlebury has benefited in the past from its partnership with VCET, which has provided internship opportunities for many Middlebury students, and we anticipate those opportunities for our students will expand. In addition, we believe VCET’s presence at the courthouse will be a great asset to the college, the town and Addison County, increasing the economic vitality of the region through its support of new businesses and through the eventual creation of new jobs. We look forward to working with VCET to help bring alumni and friends of the college back to the region to begin new businesses or expand existing ones.”

VCET’s plan to purchase the old courthouse gelled very quickly.

David Bradbury, president of the VCET, noted the organization sold its Colchester facility to the state of Vermont in mid-December. The state plans to use that property for a new health department lab. That sale sent VCET officials searching for replacement offices to supplement its space in the University of Vermont’s Farrell Hall. The organization decided to look beyond the Queen City for its second office.

“We didn’t need two facilities within a stone’s throw away from each other in Burlington,” Bradbury said.

VCET officials told its many partner organizations — including Middlebury College — about their search for new space. Middlebury College showed VCET the old courthouse, which emerged as the leading option.

“We weren’t looking to sell the courthouse — however, when VCET mentioned that they were in the market to buy an income producing property ... that would also house some VCET staff and incubation space, the transaction crystallized,” said Patrick Norton, the college’s treasurer and vice president for finance.

Middlebury College and VCET officials signed a purchase and sale agreement on Feb. 18. A closing is expected in early March.

“What attracted us to Middlebury was an active willingness and desire on the part of the college to encourage economic development in Addison County and Vermont,” Bradbury said. “There is a strong entrepreneurial environment in Middlebury, in large part thanks to the college and its alumni and students. And Middlebury has always exhibited a very strong ‘plays-well-with-others’ vibe. That’s a compelling advantage in this age of global collaboration.”

U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., along with the Vermont Technology Council and UVM’s John Evans, conceived of VCET as a technology incubator serving the state of Vermont. Evans is senior adviser to the president on UVM Technology Commercialization and UVM Ventures.

Leahy secured federal appropriations from the Small Business Administration and the Department of Housing and Urban Development to buy and set up two facilities, and to support the organization.

“Middlebury has been a leader in fostering entrepreneurship in Vermont, and the agreement with VCET forges a partnership that will build new businesses and create new jobs for Vermonters,” Leahy said in a written statement. “I commend the college for having the vision and commitment to spur future economic development in Addison County and Vermont.”

While VCET only has three full-time staff, it’s made a practice of extending temporary office space to new businesses as well as to mentors working with new entrepreneurs. With that in mind, Bradbury anticipates some good demand for space in the courthouse that is not leased back to the college.

Bradbury said VCET could begin occupying a portion of the building by this spring.

VCET is a nonprofit organization that recently helped attract eCorp English, a company based in Malta that teaches English as a second language to business executives, to Middlebury’s Exchange Street.

In its nearly six years in existence, VCET has worked with around 30 companies, which have attracted $20 million in investment from public and private sources. The companies now employ a combined total of around 150 people, from Woodstock to Burlington.

Bradbury said having a base of operations in Middlebury “will make it clear that we really do serve the whole state,” adding that it will be easier to work with companies in central and southern Vermont from a hub in Middlebury.

Norton believes VCET’s presence will give a much-needed shot in the arm to business growth in the area.

“It should come as no surprise to anyone that the town of Middlebury and the entire region and state need a strong measure of economic development,” Norton said.

“The town has assets that should be attractive to anyone starting a new business,” he added. “VCET’s presence in Middlebury will play a hand in attracting those new startups and spur much needed economic development.”

The old courthouse was built in 1883 on land originally owned by one of Middlebury’s founders, Gamaliel Painter. At one time hailed as the most beautiful courthouse in the state, the brick building replaced the original wooden courthouse, which was built in 1796 on Court Square. The brick courthouse was itself eventually replaced by the Mahady Courthouse, built in 1995-1996, just a few yards to the southeast. The college has owned the old courthouse since then, and it has been home at one time or another to Middlebury’s Center for Educational Technology, its communications office, and College Advancement.

More information about VCET can be found at www.vermonttechnologies.com.

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.


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