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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 21, 2011

For sale
Rensselaerville Institute to sell land, continue mission

By Zach Simeone

RENSSELAERVILLE — The Rensselaerville Institute’s 90-acre property in town is on the market to be sold for $1.8 million.

The institute, a not-for-profit organization with Hilltown roots that date back to 1870, has a campus that has served for nearly half a century as a venue for the meeting of minds on topics local and global. One such mind was Isaac Asimov’s; the world-famous writer returned to the institute every summer until he died in 1992.

In 1963, the organization was named the Institute on Man and Science. Experts from all disciplines — space, science, history, philosophy, and medicine — visited, as did ambassadors to the United Nations, and U.N. Secretary General U Thant.

In 1968, the institute added the Ford Residence, its first overnight guesthouse, to the property. It was named in honor of Father George B. Ford, a colleague of one of the institute’s founders, Everett Clinchy. Oscar Straus, who served as first chairman of the board of trustees, is still honorary chairman.

The Rensselaerville Institute was opened to the public as a conference center in 1970 under the authority of its new program director, Hal Williams. The next year marked the dedication of the Guggenheim Pavilion, which included a program called “The Trial of Technology,” a mock trial investigating the evolution of technology at the dawn of the Computer Age.

In 1972, a program called “Man in the Media” featured three women: journalists Lenore Hershey and Duncan McDonald, and actress Geraldine Fitzgerald. All three of them objected to the use of the word “Man” in the institute’s name, and the name was changed in 1983 to The Rensselaerville Institute.

In recent years, the institute has billed itself as “the think tank with muddy boots,” and has worked on practical projects, ranging from helping struggling schools to providing infrastructure for poor towns.

Gillian Williams, president of the institute since last year, emphasized this week that it is the physical property the institute sits on that is for sale, not the institute as a not-for-profit group.

“It’s been a tough proposition for us to run the meeting center campus,” Williams told The Enterprise this week. “These are tough times, and it’s not unusual for not-for-profits to be looking at assets, such as property, and how they might be used in other ways, or sold because they become more of a liability than an asset.”

She went on, “The economy bottomed out in 2008; they said something like 100,000 not-for-profits would go under, and they did, but the programs at the Rensselaerville Institute are still going strong. In order to maintain that, one thing the board of trustees and I are looking at is a way to handle the liability that the property currently is.”

Williams declined to comment on whether the institute was looking for a new location. “We’re looking at a number of different options,” she said. “Right now, we’re open to all kinds of creative thinking on this.”

As a business, the institute will retain its core goal of “achieving human gain,” Williams said.

“We do this by working with those that we call spark plugs,” she said, “those who are the innovators and the entrepreneurs who you find in non-profits; you find in communities; you find in governmental organizations; in universities, schools; foundations; and to work with the folks who own change to make it come about.”

She added, as an example, that the institute has “worked with communities in the Rio Grande valley to bring in fresh water, and wastewater management to reduce the incidents of hepatitis.”

Julie Tidd at Pyramid Brokerage is working on making the sale, and said that the institute hopes to find a buyer with a mission similar to the institute’s, “But each one will be addressed as it comes,” Tidd said this week.

“It’s a newer listing, it’s a beautiful piece of property, so I would not say it’s been difficult [to find possible buyers],” said Tidd. “It’s very unique, and we’re having people contact us from all walks of life.”

According to Pyramid Brokerage’s website, the 10 buildings on the property total 46,886 square feet, which include 54 guest rooms with 84 beds; an office; a conference room; a barn; a recreational building; tennis courts; and several gardens. The property contains two pump stations for water, two septic systems, private gas lines, and municipal electricity. There is a cell tower on the property, which can be used as a source of income if leased.

“There has been interest, we’ve had showings, there haven’t been any official offers made. We’re in the midst of putting the information out to a very broad net, down in New York City; we’re looking in Boston, Philadelphia.”

Tidd added that it is “yet to be determined” whether she will be helping the institute find a new property; Williams said that the rural Hilltown has served as a fitting home.

“We love the property, we love being in Rensselaerville, so I don’t mean at all to sound cavalier about the value of the property, both in itself and to the organization,” Williams concluded. “The work of not-for-profits like the institute has proved to be successful throughout the United States, and even in Great Britain, and the mission of the institute is to continue to do that work.”

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