Tag Archives: Burlington College

Something you should know about that Bernie allegation

The Burlington College closure has a chance of causing trouble for the Bernie Sanders campaign, since his wife Jane played a key role in sinking the college under a mountain of debt. There are whispers of a federal probe, and now Seven Days’ Terri Hallenbeck reports that VTGOP Vice Chair Brady Toensing claims to have “new information” linking Senator Sanders to the case.

“I was recently approached and informed that Senator Bernie Sanders’ office improperly pressured People’s United Bank to approve the loan application,” Toensing said in letters to U.S. Attorney Eric Miller and to Fred Gibson Jr., the acting inspector general of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

There is cause for skepticism aplenty; Toensing is a Republican official, and he refuses to say anything more about his sources or his new information.

But there’s one more thing you should know, and Hallenbeck didn’t catch it.

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Burlington needs to grow.

One of the things that always perplexes me about anti-development activists in Vermont is how fragile they believe our state’s character is. To hear them tell it, a single development here or there will forever alter Vermont for the worse, and trash our pristine image.

Myself, I believe our state’s character is built of stronger stuff, and can withstand a reasonable amount of development.

Ditto Burlington, a small town by most standards but our largest metropolis. There’s a kneejerk reaction to any growth or development proposal in the city, as if it will be forever shattered if it has a few tall buildings or more people, or if we were to mix some housing into the artists’ colony in the South End, or just about anything else that might add to the population. .

Well, as a person who lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan longer than I’ve lived anywhere else, I can tell you that a city can accommodate a frightening amount of growth without losing its character. Ann Arbor remains a funky town full of interesting, creative people, even though it has a lot of tall buildings downtown and a lot of in-fill development.

Yeah, the traffic sucks, but it’s always more or less sucked.

Beyond that, I believe in a simple propostion: Burlington needs to get bigger. For the sake of its people and its economy — but more importantly, for the sake of Vermont’s future.

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Burlington College and its ex-president

We could have seen this coming, but hope sprang eternal… until it died, poetically, in the snows of mid-May. Burlington College finally gave up the ghost after several years of trying to overcome one of the dumbest decisions ever made by a college president.

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I have to agree with Ms. Hallenbeck. For those just joining us, Jane O’Meara Sanders was president of Burlington College from 2004 to 2011. In her antepenultimate year, she engineered a massive land deal that put the college deep into hock: the college agreed to buy 33 acres of land and some buildings for $10 million from the Diocese of Vermont, which was liquidating assets to help pay the consequences of its long-suppressed pedophilia scandal.

Burlington College, with a student body of 200, had to assume millions in debt to acquire the property. But Sanders had a Big Plan. She was going to greatly expand the campus, nearly quadruple the student population, and dramatically increase fundraising.

In the depth of the Great Recession.

When liberal-arts colleges were dropping like flies.

It was a terrible idea on its face.

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The costs of undevelopment

Sunday’s Burlington Free Press brought us a lengthy cover story about artists in the Pine Street corridor, and their fear of potential gentrification in the area.

The Pine Street corridor is a delightful, funky mix of startups, small businesses, a few larger businesses, food enterprises, art studios, and various creative types. Hipster’s paradise.

It owes its existence to a historical quirk in zoning. As the Free Press’ Molly Walsh reports:

New residential development is prohibited along parts of Pine Street under city zoning rules going back several decades. The rules were created to preserve space for industrial and commercial uses in a 225-acre Enterprise Zone that encompasses much of Burlington’s historic manufacturing section…

Today major industry has largely moved out of the area. In its place art studios, offices and smaller-scale makers of everything from bread to beer to jewelry have sprung up along with start-ups and more established business such as Lake Champlain Chocolates.

That Enterprise Zone has had the unintended consequence of keeping rent artificially low, making it possible for this Creatives’ Colony to develop. The worm in the apple: the corridor would be an ideal place to develop more housing, which Burlington needs badly. But if the zoning were changed to allow housing, propertly values would go up. And rents. And many current tenants of the old industrial buildings would be priced out.

Of course, if you leave the zoning intact, every resident of Burlington is subsidizing the Colony through inflated costs for housing and property taxes.

So the question: is that a tradeoff worth making? If you live in Burlington, are you willing to underwrite the artists and entrepreneurs, and forego the property tax revenue and easing of housing demand?

This is a question that usually goes unasked when we consider development ideas. We see the potential costs (financial, social, environmental) of a proposal, but we don’t as easily see the costs of not developing.

Same question applies to the land formerly owned by Burlington College. The easy question is, “Do we want to preserve it as open space?’ The harder questions are, “Do we all want to subsidize that space through higher property taxes?” and “If we don’t want development there, where are we willing to allow it?” Because we can’t say “no” to everything. We can’t turn Burlington — or Vermont — into a Colonial Williamsburg, frozen in time like a beetle in amber.

Walsh interviewed quite a few Pine Street artists. Frankly, some of them seem a little whiny and entitled. One, for example, acknowledged the need for more housing but asked, “‘Why here?’ is my question. Does it have to be here?”

Well, no, it doesn’t HAVE to be there. But, given the fact that more people want to live in Burlington, it has to be somewhere. If not in the South End, if not on the former Burlington College land, then where? More suburban sprawl in Williston and Essex? (You want to see bad development? Drive a few miles north from I-89 Exit 12, past the endless and growing expanses of strip malls and subdivisions in Williston and Essex.)

If Burlington says “no” to any significant upgrade in housing stock, who does it hurt most? The low- and middle-income people who’ll be priced out of the city, and the environment of the outlying areas, where development pressure will grow.

I hope there will be a reasonable compromise on Pine Street, relaxing the strictures of the Enterprise Zone or trimming its borders. Personally, I’d like to see the Pine Street Corridor retain its character — but I’d also like to see more housing that would make use of existing infrastructure and give residents a short commute by car, bike, or bus to downtown (or Pine Street) jobs.

Overall, I’d like more attention to be paid to the hidden costs of undevelopment. It’s possible to do this intelligently, allowing desirable development while retaining our character.

A modest entreaty to our conservation groups

Okay, here I go again, disappointing some of my lefty friends. My request:

Please don’t pursue the Burlington College land. Let the sale to a developer go through, and find another use for the $7 million you’d need to block the sale.

The news kinda got lost in the IBM/GlobalFoundries shuffle and resultant flood of Republican petulance, but Burlington College announced Monday that it would sell most of its 32-acre lakefront property to a real estate developer, who would build a mix of affordable, senior, and market-rate housing. The College desperately needs the money to get out of debt and give itself a fighting chance at survival.

The deal includes a 60-day window for preservation groups to match the purchase price and keep the land from being developed.

And I’m begging you, please don’t.

Look, I realize this is Vermont and we’re going to be inundated by earnest calls to Keep This Land Pristine and Save It For Our Children. But sorry, I’m not on board.

Vermont needs more housing. A recent report by the Champlain Housing Trust and Housing Vermont shows that a lack of housing stock is driving purchase prices and rental rates upward, making housing unaffordable for many. The high price of housing is also a drag on the economy: the report says the housing crunch hurts businesses trying to recruit workers into Vermont. Which we need, to kickstart our stagnant economy and bring more kids into our under-populated schools.

And for the sake of the environment, we especially need new housing in our cities and towns. We don’t need more sprawl, particularly in Chittenden County, which already suffers from the effects of sprawl. Infill housing is good for our environmental footprint.

Every chance for a new development brings a value judgment. Do we want to preserve the land, or do we think the benefits of a development outweigh the preservation interest?

The best answer depends on the specifics of an individual project. But bear in mind: Every time we opt for preservation, we lose property taxes, we keep housing prices high, we make it harder for people to move to Vermont, and we encourage sprawl.

So please. Go ahead and raise $7 million. But use it for something that’s a clear environmental plus, instead of the usual kneejerk reaction against a project that would actually do some good things.

The (rotten) apple doesn’t fall far from the (poisoned) tree

Hey, good morning, everybody! What say we get the blood circulating with a brisk round of dumpster diving, led by Your Vermont Republican Party Vice Chair Brady Toensing?

We’re talking about the Jane Sanders brouhaha, which re-entered our attention yesterday with the release of Skip Vallee’s attack ad against Jane and Bernie. Skippy’s ad focuses on Jane Sanders’ severance deal with Burlington College: after her departure as President, she received about $200,000 in salary and benefits. Which The Gas Man characterized as a “golden parachute.”

Well, apparently Mr. Vallee didn’t come up with this idea on his own.

The Sanders Severance (by Robert Ludlum?) was reported by the media at the time of her departure, but it’s come back amidst the ollege’s latest troubles, including the sudden resignation of Sanders’ successor, Christine Plunkett. And, as VTDigger reports:

[Burlington College’s] financial struggles surfaced in the media last month when Brady Toensing, the vice chairman of the Vermont GOP, passed financial audits of the college to local media.

Oh Brady, you little scamp you.

Toensing’s backdoor mudslinging, I hear, included references to Jane Sanders’ “golden parachute.” In sharing the BC audits, he was clearly trying to highlight Sanders’ alleged role in the college’s current difficulties. Unfortunately, he didn’t get the bang he was expecting for his buck:

The severance pay of $200,000 was a year’s worth of earned but unused sabbatical, she said Wednesday. That pay and her title of president emeritus were announced when she resigned, and were covered in media accounts at the time.

Yeah, sorry, Brady. No scandal here.

Okay, this is pretty standard political hardball — conducting opposition research and slipping tidbits to the media in hopes of generating negative press for your opponents. I’ve gotten my share of tips from both sides of the metaphorical aisle; some have panned out, some have not. However, there’s a difference between sliming a politician and going after a spouse.

And it’s worth pointing out that Toensing’s activities are of a piece with his parents’ notorious scandalmongering on the national scale. Mom and Pop — Victoria Toensing and Joe diGenova by name — are frequent guests on Fox News, flogging various Obama conspiracy theories. Vic and Joe are D.C. lawyers, and Brady is a partner in their well-connected (in conservative circles) law firm.  (Details in this Golden Oldie post from Green Mountain Daily, which also details Brady’s political relationship with putative good guy Brian Dubie.)

Apparently he learned his stuff rom Mom and Pop. We look forward to more of Mr. Toensing’s political statesmanship. And maybe putative nice guy Phil Scott can explain why he thinks the junior Toensing is a proper representation of Vermont Republican values. Seems like not quite The Vermont Way, eh?

Skip Vallee is a bitter man

Oh, Rodolphe. Why can’t you just tend to your knitting? I actually like stopping at your gas stations, with their clean (!) restrooms tastefully decorated with fake flowers and chairs nobody ever sits in.

But please, let go of your Bernie Sanders fetish.

As you may recall, Our Junior Senator has made a big stink about high gas prices in Chittenden County, pointing the finger at the cartel that owns most of the area’s gas stations. Skippy, the frustrated politician wannabe, fired back — challenging Bernie to a debate. Bernie, rightfully, ignored him.

And wouldn’t you know it, after Bernie’s public splash, Burlington-area gas Skipprices came down. At least for a while. Now, as the Burlington Free Press reported, they’ve gone back up. Gotta pay for all those plastic flowers somehow.

Well, now Skip has turned his grudge into a political ad criticizing Bernie over the Burlington College mess. Bernie’s wife Jane is a former BC president, and it’s fair to say that her grandiose expansion plans played a part in the college’s current financial difficulties. The ad is on YouTube now, but Vallee plans to run it on local TV. The ad ad blasts Bernie and Jane for getting a “golden parachute” from Burlington College.

A “golden parachute” worth… wait for it…

… $200,000.

Really more of a zinc parachute, isn’t it?

Not that 200 G’s is anything to sneeze at, but it’s perfectly reasonable in comparison to severance packages given to top executives — even at nonprofits. And by corporate standards, well, it’s pocket change.

But that’s not my real point here. The main thing is, Vallee spending thousands of dollars to run an ad with no real purpose. Bernie’s not up for re-election until 2018, for God’s sake.

Skip’s spending Your Gas-Buying Dollars to toss a little gratuitous mud at Bernie Sanders, apparently because Bernie dared to point out that Vallee and his cronies were profiting from artificially high gas prices. And because Bernie’s campaign worked — forcing Skippy and Friends to, at least temporarily, bring their prices down.

Revenge is a dish best served out of a convenience-store microwave. Am I right, Skippy?