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Prestley and Helen Blake hope to donate property in Con­necticut that includes a replica of Mon­ti­cello to Hillsdale College. Wayne Dumas | Courtesy

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.

 

  • Jen­nifer Melfi

    this is like what happens when the federal gov­ernment “gifts” a munic­i­pality with a road to “boost” the economy… it doesn’t really boost any­thing, just spreads attention, main­te­nance, and budget across more items, reducing the impact of each. 20 years later, the building needs a lot of main­te­nance and it hasn’t increased your overall rev­enues com­pared with costs.

  • Alexan­derYp­si­lantis

    Amaz­ingly gen­erous donation of this property. It’ll be inter­esting to see how HC incor­po­rates this into their mission.