Sunday, June 27, 2010

Whopper of the week (month? year?) award goes to….drum roll, please….. Bowdoin College!

Every now and then, you sit down with an adult beverage to casually leaf through the latest print media.  And on occasion, in doing so, you come across an item that puts your happy home at risk.

That’s because you run the risk of reflexively projecting an atomized mouthful of said high octane beverage into the immediate area.  If you’re unfortunate enough to have an open candle flame nearby, you could become a “fire-breathing” side-show star, a career move that is definitely not life-enhancing.

I came across just such an item this week in the Forecaster, and you can find it here under the title “Brunswick historic board questions Bowdoin house demo.”

The fun part of this story, for openers, is that it pits two of Brunswick’s elite forces of nature against each other – the Ivory Tower of Bowdoin College, and the preservationists of the Village Review Board.  The very soul of the community lies in the balance, so the stakes are immense.

It is therefore incumbent on us to get to the ‘heart’ of the matter, which is one very undistinguished structure sitting on the lot at 4-6 Cleaveland St., poised roughly between the First Parish Church in that odd island it sits on, and their Pilgrim House across the way. 

As far as we know, the structure has been vacant for some time, and the property belongs to Bowdoin College; we’re not sure for how long, but we think it’s been for some time. 

The conundrum is this: the structure lies in the problem area associated with redesign of a very odd major intersection, but it also falls within a historic district listed in the National Registry of such locations.

The ying and yang of community interests, the common good, and societal self-esteem come into play, it thus appears.  Gosh, this is fun!  The great dilemma is whether the structure should be preserved, and if it should, whether it should be at its current location, or moved elsewhere.

The next question becomes, rather obviously, who should pay to preserve it, if that is indeed the right thing to do.

(OK, Gertrude; this would be a good time to cue up the Whopper video clip!)

Before I go any further, make sure you’ve fully swallowed whatever libation you might have supped before you move on.

The cited article discusses possible renovation of the building, following which Catherine Longley, the chief financial VP of Bowdoin, discusses how the college hates to tear down historic buildings, and has invested over $3 million in 10 properties it owns in the Federal Street Historic District.

Alright…brace yourself now….here’s the winner in the ‘whopper’ contest;

“We simply don’t have the money to renovate it,” Longley said.

Do you know what ‘credulity’ means?  Do you know that the word ‘gullible’ is not in the dictionary?

We’re talking about a college which has an endowment, meaning a positive financial reserve, of something approaching a half billion dollars.  Only a few years ago, Longley was touting how the college had earned $200 million plus, IN ONE YEAR, on its investments.

We’ve watched as they spent $20 million plus to enhance their art museum.  We’ve seen them tear down a perfectly functional ice rink so they could turn the area into a parking lot, and replace the rink with a new structure at a cost of something in the range of $15 million.

The money they spend on a regular basis on capital projects is well beyond what this little clapboard dwelling might require, but that is not the point here.  It is, instead, Longley’s ‘crying poormouth’ over the College’s financial circumstances.

As you might expect, Side is dedicated to solving problems, not analyzing them.  And so, we offer these innovative solutions to Vice President Longley as a way to ‘bail out’ Bowdoin from the horrible fiscal circumstances in which they find themselves.

1) Make a phone call or two to your congressional delegation to secure earmark funds (pork barrel, or ‘stimulus’ dollars) to pay for the renovation.  You’ve gotten funds to help ‘plan’ Stowe House renovations, and ‘cogeneration facilities’ for your dining hall.  You’ve got the connections to get taxpayer funds when you want them; use them here.

2) Apply to the Town of Brunswick for a TIF to help you finance the renovation.  Oh, crap, wait a minute.  You’ve got what amounts to a permanent TIF for everything you do; you pay nothing in property taxes, except for some ‘payments in lieu of’ that allow you to claim that you contribute to town operation.  That’s nice, and we appreciate it, but if you were assessed and taxed at fair value, the tax rate for homeowners would probably drop by nearly half.

3) Call upon one or more or your immensely successful and wealthy alumni to cough up a mere half a mil or so to put the project ‘over the goal line,’ even it it does send all the wrong messages about evil capitalism.

4) You could always BORROW the money to renovate the property.  In case you haven’t noticed, town, state, and federal governments are borrowing money like a bunch of drunken college students.  As are individuals and other entities who’ve been led to believe that debt never comes due.  (Or that chickens don’t come home to roost, unless it’s capitalism that’s involved.)  So what’s the problem?

If, as we suspect, Bowdoin has net assets of hundreds of millions in its endowment, it essentially has no debt.

Which leads to this question: why the hell should a college in small town Maine be immune to the fiscal idiocy that drives the behavior of every other institution in our lives?

OK, I’m through.  I should know better than to ask such a stupid question, and perhaps I will some day.

Until then, have fun coming up with your own explanation.  And please be so kind as to let readers know what you came up with.


  1. In fact, Bowdoin's endowment has long surpassed the half billion mark. That is no reason to throw money away on useless projects such as the one described here. The whole reason our school has been able to secure hundreds of millions of dollars in years past is precisely because of our financial competency. Although "money" may theoretically be there, it is likely already allocated or tied up in investments. Our capital projects are funded mostly by specific donations (ex. alumnus Peter Buck, founder of Subway, donated a very generous sum for the construction of our new Buck Health Center.) To suggest that Bowdoin does not care about preserving historically important buildings, as the Village Review board has said, is absolutely absurd. Why did we spend over $20 million on renovating the Walker Art Museum? We spent the money to preserve a more than century old building. There are numerous other examples. The Village Review Board needs to show some gratitude to the institution that has poured countless amounts of money into the area for the last 216 years.

  2. Hey, Bill. Thanks for joining in and offering your thoughts and insights.

    Here on Other Side, we love a good scrap, and I suspect your opening thoughts might inspire a lively response.

    We'll be watching to see if the Village Review Board stops by with their grovelling pads on, assumes a contrite posture, and expresses the profuse gratitude due your institution for its 216 years of "pouring" money into the area.

    I suspect, however, that the amounts are not "countless," and that if pressed, you would tally up the exact number for our edification.

    From where we sit, the residents of your institution's home town and state have coughed up a goodly sum over the years as well, and come to think of it, have been doing so well before the founding of Bowdoin College.

    And most of it has been coughed up under force of law, not that it matters.

    I'm sure the College is appropriately grateful for the thoughtful investments residents have made in the surrounding environs over the years.

    We'd ask for a show of gratitude, but that would be undiplomatic, I suppose.