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Northfield committee a useful tool in campus transition

NORTHFIELD — Not all town meetings are pleasant, but one committee is consistently civil, and always listening.

The Northfield Campus Collaborative Committee was formed three years ago when Hobby Lobby Stores and the Green family purchased the former Northfield Mount Hermon School campus.

Since then, it’s served as an informational forum and sounding board for residents, and a way for campus stakeholders to get together and listen to the community and each other as they wait to hear what kind of group the Greens will offer the campus to next.

“Nobody knows what the next months will bring, least of all Jerry Pattengale or the Greens,” said Alex Stewart, committee chairman. Pattengale was hired by the Greens to weed through interested parties and suggest viable Christian groups to the family.

Will Northfield become a college town? Or will the campus turn into a home for Christian charities, or perhaps a parochial school? It’s anyone’s guess.

In the Greens’ uncertainty lies Northfield’s opportunity to come together as a community and prepare for whatever transition may come, said Stewart.

“We’ve been enabling the town to define itself,” he said.

Stewart said part of the reason the committee is so effective is its lack of authority.

“There is absolutely nobody who we can tell to do anything,” he said. “I like that.”

While other town boards and committees have to make tough, sometimes unpopular decisions, the collaborative was formed to identify the needs and responsibilities of campus stakeholders, and advise the Selectboard on the campus’ transition.

That gives the committee time to hear everyone speak at length, something that wouldn’t fit the time constraints of a busy Selectboard meeting.

“It’s a buffer,” said resident Don Campbell. “Things are heard, condensed, and given to the Selectboard in a bite-sized chunk.”

Don and wife Judi Campbell rarely miss a meeting of the group, though they’re not members.

“It’s about facilitation, communication, and identifying common interests,” said Joan Stoia. She and husband Steve Stoia run Centennial House Bed and Breakfast, and are also regulars at collaborative meetings.9

People like the Stoias, Campbells, and other residents may not sit on the committee, but you might not know it if you stopped by a meeting.

That’s because the committee values residents’ opinions. Anyone who speaks gets its full respect and attention, and they’re rarely cut short before they’ve had their say.

“People are comfortable coming here and sharing ideas,” said Judi Campbell.

The committee’s meetings also serve as an educational forum, where residents can learn what is happening with the campus, and hear from the committee and occasionally invited guests, which have included Robert Pyers of Greenfield’s Economic Development office, Ann Hamilton of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, and Linda Dunlavy of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments. When CS Lewis College was the intended recipient, officials from that school would regularly visit collaborative meetings and provide progress updates.

When Grand Canyon University emerged as a front-runner for the 217-acre campus, and planned to host 5,000 students there, the committee’s meetings packed the Town Hall auditorium, sometimes to standing room, as people poured in to talk about the campus.

Whether those individuals thought GCU was just the jump-start the town’s economy and job market needed, or felt the large college would irrevocably change the little town they loved, they brought their questions, comments, hopes and fears to the meetings, and shared them with all. Though at times people became passionate, they remained respectful of each other, keeping meetings productive.

Collaborative members agree that their meetings have become a place where people are comfortable expressing themselves,

Since GCU pulled out in October, gone with it the plans to expand the 500-student campus to 5,000, the collaborative’s meetings have quieted down. Now, its 17 members usually outnumber the audience.

Though the town may not see an entity the size of GCU, and the campus may go to something other than a college, the work the committee has done and the opinions it gathered have not been in vain.

“We’ve learned a lot,” said Stewart. “Through the past 12 months, the community has begun to do something that hadn’t been done in decades. It’s begun to define Northfield and its needs for the future.”

“Nobody could imagine three years ago all the things that would happen in this process,” he added. “Little by little, Northfield is getting itself together, by admitting that it’s not together.”

The prospect of a large institution coming to town has illustrated Northfield’s need for an updated master plan, and $75,000 for a consultant was approved at May’s annual town meeting. The Master Plan Steering Committee is in the first stages of the process, and awaits the Selectboard’s decision on the committee’s recommended consultant.

The process will involve multiple forums for residents to give their input. The town hopes to duplicate the collaborative’s comfortable setting in those discussions.

At first, the collaborative was dubbed the Northfield, C.S. Lewis, NMH Committee, because of the Greens’ intent to give the campus to the startup CS Lewis College. That deal fell through last December.

Then, the Greens announced they’d seek another Christian group as a recipient, preferably a college. As they began their search, the committee started pulling the community together, and developed a lengthy list of residents’ concerns and logistical issues the town would face if a group would expand the campus.

The ever-changing situation has caused the collaborative to adapt, and its role continues to evolve. At last week’s meeting, members debated what the group’s role should be going forward.

Some felt the committee should expand its scope to include all aspects of Northfield, others felt it should grow to include Redemption Christian Academy, which plans to move about 25 boarding students to the former Linden Hill School campus in January. Some thought the committee should stick to its original scope, focusing on the former NMH.

The possibility of working with the Master Plan Steering Committee also came up. Some collaborative members were concerned that there could be too much overlap and duplication of efforts.

In the end, the group came up with a revised mission statement, which will be sent to the Selectboard for approval. In it, they set out to continue doing what they’ve been doing.

The committee agreed its focus should stay on the campus, but also acknowledged that the campus and town were inseparable; activity in town could affect the campus, and vice versa.

“The committee looks at all of Northfield through the lens of the campus,” said Steve Stoia. Though not a member himself, he seemed to have captured the essence of the collaborative’s mission.

David Rainville can be reached at:
drainville@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 279

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