Prestley Blake, the 104-year-old co-founder of Friendly’s restaurant chain, brims daily with new ideas, his lawyer said — and one of his latest is to give 90 acres of property, including a replica of Monticello, to Hillsdale College to use as an educational center.
Months later, that idea is coming closer to fruition, pending mostly on zoning-commission approval in Somers, Connecticut, where the property is. Blake and his wife, Helen, plan to donate the property and some funds for its operation to the college, according to their attorney, Tim Keeney.
The Blakes approached the college in August with the idea. Since then, college officials and members of the Somers community have exchanged visits and decided to move forward with the project.
“It’s something the Blakes identify with directly, and therefore they feel very good about working with Hillsdale. It’s an alignment of interests,” Keeney said, noting the Blakes’ appreciation for the college’s values.
Mike Harner, chief of staff for the Hillsdale College president’s office, said the college would likely use the property to run programs for about 50 to 75 people each throughout the year, mostly in the summer. The educational center would fit well with the college’s mission and goals, he said.
“It would go along with the things that we do at the school. Hostels, CCAs, online courses, Imprimis, all those things are methods of communicating the things that the college exists to support. Having a center, which is the idea for the Blake property, would allow us to do those things for various size groups in various ways,” he said.
He said the college would like to use the facilities for lectures and events, as well as trainings for local students and educators. Its location in Connecticut puts it in the proximity of a good number of friends of the college, he added.
Some local residents do have concerns about the change, and the college is looking to address them, Harner said.
“We want to be good neighbors,” Harner said.
Some residents of Somers — which has a population just a little larger than Hillsdale’s 8,000 — are worried about traffic and changes in property use, Keeney said. The Journal Inquirer, a local newspaper, reported that one neighbor expressed concern about “increasing traffic, adequate parking, and changing the nature of this area of Somers.”
But Keeney said traffic won’t prove much of an issue because of the property’s location, and the college will maintain or improve the property by using it.
“The benefits to the neighbors is the maintenance of the property and the conservation of the land,” Keeney said, noting that the Blakes have always tried to use their property generously, allowing local residents to use its trails. Harner said the college would continue to keep the property open for locals.
Most concerning to Somers residents is the loss of tax revenue that would result from the property becoming a non-profit educational center: “That’s the elephant in the room,” Keeney said.
Keeney estimated that the real-estate tax from the Blakes’ property currently brings in $80,000 to $90,000 annually for the town. It is a very small percentage of the town budget, though, he said.
Harner said the college is aware of the community’s concerns about the tax revenue and is working with Somers members to address them, though the college’s presence itself may address some of those concerns. Keeney pointed out that the educational center may bring in business revenue for hotels and restaurants as people come from out of town to visit.
Somers itself is located 25 minutes from an international airport and within an hour’s drive of Hartford, Connecticut, and Springfield, Massachusetts. It’s only three hours from New York City. The town hosts a lacrosse tournament every year and is known for its horse farming, according to Paul Salva, a Somers pulmonologist and president of the town’s education foundation.
“By New England standards, it’s remarkably beautiful,” Salva said.
Salva, who visited Hillsdale College along with Keeney, the Blakes, and three other Somers residents in December, said he’s “enthusiastic” about the prospect of the educational center.
“It would set us apart regionally,” he said. “It would bring all the good of a college campus without the worries of an undergraduate campus. It would just raise the profile of the town in a positive way tremendously.”
He said the trip to Hillsdale in December was encouraging: “We’ve seen Hillsdale is a very good neighbor to its community, which says something.”
The Monticello replica, a sized-to-scale model of Thomas Jefferson’s home completed in 2014, is “pretty amazing,” according to Keeney: Its bricks came from the same source as those in the real Monticello, and the Blakes flew down to Virginia to get the plans for the original. The Blakes’ property also includes a personal home that Prestley Blake built in 1974, and another house built for his daughter, according to Keeney.
Prestley Blake sold the Monticello building to a local eye doctor a few years ago, but the current owner is “very supportive” of the new plan, and a verbal deal is in place, Keeney said.
The next step is a zoning meeting in Somers in April. The zoning commission has to grant a specialty-use permit for the property to change its purpose from residential to educational, Keeney said. For the next few weeks, the college is working on communicating with the community and being transparent about its plans, Harner said.
“The neighbors very much need to understand what it is that Hillsdale can do and is planning on doing,” Keeney said.
Harner said the college is hopeful that the Blakes’ idea will become reality before long.
“I would say the college is very optimistic for the prospects of the gift and to keep the Blakes’ legacy alive through the teaching that the college does,” he said.