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MacDowell Colony should do more to support the town

Don’t get me wrong — I love the MacDowell Colony.

I love the concept of giving creative people a sustained opportunity to create without the distractions of phones chirping, email buzzing, horns honking, or whatever normally gets in their way. I love seeing a new Colonist walk past the house, usually still dressed in urban-warrior black, and so absorbed in creative thought that she doesn't even notice there's a sidewalk on the other side of the street.

I love bragging, too, about all the now famous creative people who have come to be honored with the prestigious annual MacDowell Medal, including Stephen Sondheim this year.

What I don’t love is that after winning its landmark property tax case — which, by the way, I was happy to see it win because of the important precedent for other non-profits, as well — the MacDowell Colony has decided not to make any voluntary contribution whatsoever to the Town of Peterborough to defray the cost of providing it with essential municipal services. In other words, if a Colonist needs defibrillation by EMTs on the way to the ER in order to keep the creative juices flowing, or if a novelist’s new pages are on fire and the pumper truck needs to respond, or if someone plunders paintings from a Colonist’s cottage while he’s sharing lively conversation at dinner in Bond Hall and the police are summoned to investigate and prosecute, there’s no recognition by the Colony that those are services worth underwriting to any extent at all.

If that was the case with all local tax-exempt organizations, the Colony’s position might at least be understandable, if not justifiable. It’s not, though. The Peterborough Players, Sharon Arts Center and Monadnock Center for History and Culture are all in the same exempt boat but have all chosen to make a voluntary “payment in lieu of taxes.”

I can assure you, too, that if you look at the published returns of all four of those organizations, you’ll see that the latter three are perennially perched precariously over a financial abyss, while the Colony has investment assets, not even including its real estate, of about $30 million.

There's no question that it has significant operating expenses, but it could afford a modest contribution toward municipal services it now receives free of charge. So, this year, instead of making my own modest annual contribution to the Colony, I’m cutting out the middle man and sending it to the town instead. It won’t make a drop in the bucket to the Colony, but then we’ve all heard the saying, “It’s not the money, it’s the principle of the thing.”

L. Phillips Runyon III is the presiding justice of the Jaffrey-Peterborough District Court in Jaffrey and the town moderator for Peterborough.

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