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Business Support Vital to College

Lebanon — Saddled with more than $2 million in debt, Lebanon College is turning to Upper Valley businesses to secure tens of thousands of dollars in donation pledges this spring to help stabilize the school’s fiscal situation.

The college, which welcomed a new president in September and recently had its accreditation renewed, now is charging ahead with a fundraising appeal to more than 30 companies to gauge community support for the college as it seeks to refinance long-term loans.

“To assure that future, we need to achieve an entirely realistic objective in the next month or six weeks,” school officials wrote in a fundraising letter earlier this month.

A great deal of the school’s debt was incurred when it took out a $2.8 million loan in 2007 to buy the Shoetorium building across the mall from the college’s main headquarters. The college is trying to lower its $14,000 monthly debt payment.

“We need to find out from the community how much we are a part of them and they are a part of us,” Lebanon College President Ron Biron said in an interview yesterday.

The college was encouraged to test the charitable waters of the business community by the Keene-based Monadnock Economic Development Corporation, which has outlined a debt financing proposal that Lebanon College hopes to put in place by the end of June. Messages left for the economic development agency were not returned yesterday.

Lebanon College is a private institution founded in 1956, which serves about 250 commuter students at its downtown campus. The college offers two-year associates degrees.

Arthur Gardiner, chairman of the college’s Board of Trustees, said the appeal to the business community — which is being done for the first time this year — is an expansion of the annual fundraising drives typically done by the college.

Lebanon College raised slightly more than $50,000 in last year’s annual appeal, and Gardiner has set the bar higher this year, with the goal of raising $110,000, which he said the college needs to raise in order to secure its debt financing.

If the appeal falters, however, the impact would be less clear.

“We are committed to keeping this college open and doing our very best, but we do need community support,” said Gardiner.

Gardiner said that the college has been hacking away at its $2.2 million debt with monthly payments of $14,000, but it is trying to reduce those payments by a “significant amount.

“We need to,” he said, citing high interest rates and the need for the college to operate on a firm financial footing.

In addition, the college has raised about $100,000 in as part of its ongoing capital campaign, plus another $275,000 in pledged donations . The catch? The larger chunk is contingent upon the college refinancing its debt.

Gardiner said college officials are encouraged by new plans for an “allied health care and science center” that would be located in the old Shoetorium building. Biron said the center would be dedicated to training students for skills sought by area businesses. He said given its location in the health care hub of the Upper Valley, the future of Lebanon College is dependent upon an increased training in that industry.

“We’re still a business college, as well as everything else that we offer ... but we are strategically placed in the Upper Valley to provide good training and education to a lot of individuals,” he said.

Biron said that interest and enrollment in health care courses have been trending upwards, while enrollment for other areas of study — such as business, fine arts, photography and creative writing — has remained steady.

Biron conceded that the college’s endowment, at around $250,000, was small considering the size of Lebanon College.

“We certainly need to grow that through capital campaigns and the annual (fundraising),” he said.

Despite the fiscal challenges, Biron said that there are no plans to downsize faculty at the college.

To the contrary, he said, the college is looking to add staff.

Since his hire in September, Biron has hired a new dean of academics, registrar and director of financial aid, all three of whom he has worked with in the past. He said that they are working as a team to re-energize and redevelop the college.

Paul Boucher, president of the Lebanon Area Chamber of Commerce and former chairman of Lebanon College’s board , said he had not yet heard about the fundraising appeal, but he said he was more than pleased with the college’s leadership under Biron.

“He’s just been a breath of fresh air to the college and the business community has really accepted him,” he said.

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.