By Emma Cotton/VTDigger
With a $350,000 federal grant secured this week, Rutland City is a step closer to acquiring a 20-acre parcel of College of St. Joseph’s former campus, which includes an athletic center and recreation fields.
The city government is one of 14 organizations statewide to receive federal funds to boost local economies. The money is distributed through the Northern Border Regional Commission.
The College of St. Joseph held its final semester last spring. The Heritage Credit Union had officially foreclosed on the college in February. The city began leasing the athletic center in November, using it as a community recreation space in a dry run that tested whether demand was high enough to consider the $1.8 million purchase.
So far, demand has exceeded expectations. Before and during the pandemic, the city recreation department, led by superintendent Kim Peters, reported significant interest in the center’s recreation options and programs.
She watched last winter as the gym, weight room, racquetball courts, community room, game room, conference rooms and offices filled with residents who had been looking for an indoor spot to gather and exercise. By the time the center closed in March because of Covid-19, the center had 400 members, each paying $10 per month.
“It’s kind of been happening organically,” Peters said. “As we need to structure it, we will.”
When Rutland Middle School’s basketball court was flooded in January, the school’s basketball teams played on the athletic center’s college-sized court. Walkers from the Diamond Run Mall, which closed last fall, began walking laps around the gymnasium, which can hold 1,000 fans.
In February, the Recreation Dept. moved its offices to the building.
“We were doing really well,” Peters said. “When I listed all the partners and all the different organizations that were utilizing our facility before Covid, it came out to, like, 30 different organizations.”
Almost as soon as the facility closed to the public, it reopened as a child care center for health care workers at Rutland Regional Medical Center, then transitioned into hosting the city’s annual summer day camps, which also serve as child care.
After summer camps conclude this week, the athletic center will cautiously resume its pre-pandemic activities.
Given the upcoming patchwork of remote learning, in-person classes and altered sports, the center provides an option — that city officials believe will be safe — for kids to gather.
“We want to provide an environment and an atmosphere where kids can stay in a safe place with the same social group, study together, do Zoom meetings together,” Peters said. “And then you know, when it’s break time, they can go shoot hoops and go play racquetball, then go outside on the field.”
In November, Rutland voters will decide whether the city should raise $1.45 million to buy the property, augmented by the $350,000 federal grant. The total price remains $1.8 million.
On Wednesday night, Rutland’s Board of Aldermen debated for 90 minutes about whether to add the question to November’s ballot or wait until Town Meeting Day in March, and eventually voted 6-4 to make it November.
Some thought the board should try to find other sources of funding to ease the burden on taxpayers, who are already strained due to the pandemic.
“Can we consolidate operations? Can we sell buildings? Is there something we can do?” said Alderman Christopher Ettori. “That’s the information I felt we needed in order to be able to go to the voters and say, we did do everything possible to reduce this price.”
Others saw an urgency to buying the facility, which they say has already become an essential part of the community.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Mayor David Allaire suggested pulling $250,000 from the city’s Zamias fund — gained through a recent deal between developer Zamias Services, which owned the now-closed Diamond Run Mall, and the city — to lower the bond.
“We have heard from the public the need for recreation, not just for children, but for adults and people of all age ranges,” Alderwoman Sharon Davis said. “I cannot see a better reason to take that $250,000 and put it toward this cost. We have thrown money to marketing and seeing little results; we’ve thrown money to other endeavors and not seen it. We know we will see a positive endeavor here.”
The board ultimately referred the use of the $250,000 Zamias fund to the city’s finance committee, keeping the bond at $1.45 million.
All agreed that the eventual purchase of the facility would benefit residents in Rutland County.
“We were thrilled with how the community responded to the stuff we were doing down there,” Allaire said. “We think that there’s a good chance this bond will pass.”