Like other Vermont institutions struggling with declining enrollment and unsustainable finances, College of St. Joseph in Rutland held its final commencement last month. But college president Jennifer Scott said CSJ is working hard to chart a new course.
When Scott became president of CSJ last year, she oversaw nearly 100 employees.
Today, there are four.
And these days, Scott’s office, in St. Joseph Hall, an imposing white-columned building that anchors the small campus, is quiet.
The college was founded in 1956, and like Southern Vermont College in Bennington, it announced this year that it had lost its accrediation to award academic degrees. Many assumed that meant the Rutland campus would shut down.
“I think that that’s a natural assumption, if you’re not offering degree programs anymore, then what is there left?” Scott said.
But she believes CSJ can harness its 117-acre campus and infrastructure for higher level professional training, certificate programs and business development. That would fulfill CSJ’s educational mission, Scott said, and help the local economy.She admits that most of the details still need to be worked out. And that's a process she said will be ongoing this summer.
"What I see it looking like, is that it's a hub for education and economic development for a 21st century, Vermont economy," Scott said. "So there's education, there's training, there's professional advancement, there are resources, there's networking, there's connections."
This would all be in Rutland, which Scott pointed out is a federally-designated "Opportunity Zone." That’s a designation that was recently added to the federal tax code to encourage development in economically disadvantaged areas by providing additional tax incentives to investors.
Scott said that it's a big plus for entrepreneurs in Rutland and for investors interested in funding CSJ’s transition.
To help facilitate its potential makeover, CSJ has been working with Vermont Works Management, a private investment firm.
Bob Zulkoski, the company's chairman, said the goal is not only to offer professional development, but to turn CSJ into a full-service business incubator and accelerator that would offer support services, networking and funding opportunities for startups.
“If you think of an accelerator as a three-month MBA boot camp, for those three months, the participants in that accelerator will actually be living on campus,” Zulkoski said.
And that’s important, he added, "because networking and the collision of ideas often happens after hours, when people are socializing."
"What I see it looking like ... it's a hub for education and economic development for a 21st century, Vermont economy."Zulkoski believes the campus in Rutland could serve the entire state.
"You know, if we expect entreprenuers to come from Bennington or Brattleboro or Burlington or Springfield, these programs wouldn't work if they had to drive three hours each day or if they had to spend $100 each night for accomodations," he said. "So to make these programs effective and inclusive for all Vermonters, they need to be in residence."
The project is still far from a reality, however.
Zulkoski said Vermont Works Management has contributed staff and half of the $300,000 needed to conduct a feasibility study designed to tackle key questions like: what sort of facility and programs would work best in Rutland? How would the new effort be funded, and what’s the best way to ensure long-term viability?
According to a written statement issued by the college, Heritage Family Credit Union has also contributed funds for the feasibility study.
Vermont Works Management has worked on Vermont Innovation Commons, a similar project in Burlington still under development. Zulkowki estimated that the CSJ project would likely cost several million dollars.
Local business leaders like Rutland Economic Development Corporation Director Tyler Richardson are crossing their fingers.
“These types of spaces, giving entrepreneurs the resources that they need to be successful, that’s going to be what we’re going to need to grow our economy going forward… growing our own and building our own businesses,” Richardson said.
He added that he was grateful that the college is actively looking for ways to repurpose itself.
"Dr. Jennifer Scott is a phenomenal leader for the institution, and she's a fighter for the institution and the community," Richardson said. "I know she and the board of trustees are dedicated to figuring out what the next step is for the campus itself."But Richardson admitted that funding and sustainability for the college's vision remain big questions.
An attempt by the college to start a physician assistant program five years ago fell flat. Some employees and local vendors said the college still owes them money.
Jim Eckhardt, president of Censor Security in Rutland, said CSJ owes him $20,000 for campus policing he provided this past year.
“I called down there and they won’t answer,” Eckhardt said. “So I drove down there and visited with them, and they turned me over to some Dorset Solutions Group, which is a bankruptcy group... and they basically said the property is for sale, when it sells you may get paid, but there’s a long list of vendors.”
Jennifer Scott said it has been a difficult year financially.
“We could just close the doors and liquidate assets and file bankruptcy and just say, ‘Okay, it's gonna be somebody else's job to take care of all of this.’ But that's not what we want to do,” she said. “We first and foremost believe in a vision for CSJ and a path forward for CSJ. And should that be successful, it is also our way of satisfying our financial obligations, which matters a great deal to us.”
Scott said CSJ plans to hold a public meeting to gather input from the Rutland area on their plans soon.
This report comes from the New England News Collaborative: eight public media companies, including The Public's Radio, coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.