MONTPELIER – By the fall, New England Culinary Institute will return to its roots in the capital city and change into a college, pending approval from its board of directors.
At the beginning of next week, the seven members of the board will be in Montpelier reviewing a plan first presented in December regarding a transformation of the culinary institute.
Student housing, administrative offices and classrooms now located in Essex Junction will close and those operations will move to Montpelier, according to Richard Flies, executive vice president of NECI. The culinary institute is expected to expand its presence at The Essex, formerly The Inn at Essex, with internships, short courses and private events.
By changing from an institute to a college, the school is planning to offer a whole food experience that includes small business education, aspects of agriculture and writing about food.
"We will definitely have an expanded online presence," said Paul Sorgule, vice president of education at NECI. "We'd be remiss in avoiding that opportunity."
The culinary institute is also looking to collaborate academically and economically with the Vermont College of Fine Arts, Community College of Vermont, and Union Institute and University, specifically on housing and education opportunities, according to Flies and Sorgule.
"NECI is not closing," he said Friday, responding to a buzz created after officials of the institute met with students, faculty and staff earlier this week. "NECI is working on staying viable in a struggling economy."
Closing the Essex Junction campus would mean transferring about 100 students who are in housing there and up to 50 members of the institute's staff.
"We're trying to get out of the housing business," said Flies, noting the college will look to the Montpelier community for student housing. "We're phasing the classrooms and housing off the Essex campus. We will continue to run all of the restaurants there."
The village of Essex Junction will feel the loss, according to Village Manager Dave Crawford.
"Not a pleasant time for them or us," he said Friday. "It's disruptive news. … There's quite a number of buildings and units involved. The economic impact is obviously people not (being) there."
When New England Culinary Institute opened its doors in 1980, it was one of few schools in its class around the country, according to Sorgule. Competition has increased, and the school's founder and chief executive officer, Fran Voigt, sees the institute expanding into a college as a way to remain viable.
"The face of culinary education is changing," said Sorgule. He went on to explain that the expanded presence in Montpelier will "allow the community to have quicker access to things at the college."
Vermont College of Fine Arts President Thomas Greene said its first year as an established institution has been a good one. New England Culinary Institute already uses two of the college's dormitories for student housing and the cafeteria for teaching and providing meals on campus. While the fine arts college has plans to grow, Greene said discussions with NECI about how to make full use of the property on College Street have been ongoing.
"I think there are creative ways to use this resource, and we're certainly interested in exploring that," he added. "We're open to all possibilities in working with them. … In terms of what that may look like, I think it's too early to say."
The culinary institute has about 325 people on staff. In the last six months it has reduced staff numbers and hours. Enrollment at NECI is at 588 students, a lower number than administrators had hoped for at this time. Enrollment numbers for the last two sessions have been low largely due to students' and families' reluctance to take out loans in such a fragile economy.
Buildings once used by NECI for student housing in Montpelier, managed by the Central Vermont Community Land Trust, have been vacated and put on the market for sale.
June is the next enrollment period and will mark the beginning of the changes to the institute that will be more firmly in place by the September enrollment.
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