Hitting Home: Non-profits feeling the squeeze

02/12/09 5:30PM By Nina Keck
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Part of the special VPR Series "Hitting Home: The Recession and Vermont"

(Host) Charitable and corporate giving is down, fewer grants are available and state funding is being slashed. It's a combination that's putting a hard squeeze on nonprofit organizations in Vermont.

Today as part of our Hitting Home series, VPR's Nina Keck reports on the fight to save a landmark arts center in Rutland.

(Keck) Pat Hunter opens the heavy wooden door that leads inside one of Rutland's most historic mansions.

(Hunter) "Welcome to the Chaffee... this is the foyer and right before us is this grand beautiful, wooden staircase. It's just very impressive when you come in and the woodwork is gorgeous, the detail that was done on this building when it was built is just magnificent."

(Keck) Hunter is President of the Board of Directors of the Chaffee Arts Center. For nearly fifty years the Chaffee has been a hub for exhibits, art classes, lectures, social events, and children's programs. While initially called the Rutland Area Arts Association, the group changed its name to the Chaffee Arts Center in 1982 when it bought the stately Queen Anne Victorian built by George Chaffee.

(Hunter) "Well, it's lovely, and yet to keep this up is a tremendous expense. You can see just standing here, just heating this building. . . they did not insulate buildings the way they do today. So this place is a fortune to keep heated."

(Keck) To save money, the board closed the mansion for the winter and cut staff. But Hunter says it still costs three thousand dollars a month just to maintain the building. She says the board has come to realize the only way to save the organization may be to sell the house. But voting members of the Chaffee aren't so sure.

(sound of meeting) Can I have your attention??".

(Keck) At a recent public meeting to rally support for the art center, many argued that the location, grandeur and tradition of the mansion were integral to the Chaffee's identity. Others worried that if the Chaffee tries to operate without a headquarters - even for a short time - it will cease to exist. Christine Holshuh echoed the emotions of many.

(Holshuh) "When I came to Rutland what I was looking for were cultural things that I could get involved in so I could be part of the community. And I went to the Chaffee right away and put in my information for volunteering and all that. And I was never called. And then I read in the paper that it was going to be closed. And it just made me so sad because I felt like as a new member of the community, having places like the Chaffee, the Paramount and the Carving Studio - Those places, those wonderful places that bring such cultural depth to the community are so important."

(Keck) But those types of places are especially vulnerable in a recession. Just last month, Frog Hollow, the Vermont state craft center, suspended operations at its Middlebury location and nonprofit organizations around the state are struggling. Alex Aldrich directs the Vermont Arts Council.

(Aldrich) "I think the biggest challenge to nonprofits is their allegiance to their mission. A mission is a very powerful tool in good times, but it is also one of the greatest inhibitors of progress during economically challenging times."

(Keck) Sound business decisions can get clouded by emotions he says and there's often no room for innovation. He says that may be the case with the Chaffee. What they do he says is more important than where they're located. Board President Pat Hunter agrees and says Rutland's Paramount Theatre has offered space if the art center relocates. She says they've also been approached about possibly locating in the as yet un-built Berwick building - a multi story downtown project that's currently in the planning stages.

(Hunter) "To be able to design a place based on what our needs are, what our drives are - I find that an exciting opportunity. People say well, that's not now and no it isn't. But it's coming."

(Keck) Members of the Chaffee will have a chance to decide when they vote on whether or not to sell the mansion February 24th.

For VPR News, I'm Nina Keck in Rutland.

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