Still no news on former NMH campus
NORTHFIELD — It’s been a quiet year on the former Northfield Mount Hermon School campus since Hobby Lobby transferred the deed — and the search for a permanent owner — to a Christian charity.
In September, the National Christian Foundation said it was considering groups that were “not exclusively Christian,” had narrowed the search down to two or three candidates, and would announce a new owner by Christmas.
The holiday came and went in the town of less than 3,000 without that announcement.
“We didn’t make as much progress as we’d hoped,” said Aimee Minnich, who oversees the National Christian Foundation’s search for a viable owner for the 217-acre campus.
Though the foundation is a nonprofit, it’s still on the hook for annual property taxes of more than $400,000. To qualify for a tax exemption, the campus would have to be used for nonprofit purposes. Though it’s not making the NCF any money, “collecting dust” isn’t a recognized nonprofit use.
The campus’ last owners didn’t make as much progress as they’d hoped, either.
Hobby Lobby, a craft store chain owned by the Greens, an Oklahoma family with a long track record of Christian philanthropy, bought the campus and its 43 buildings in 2009 for $100,000.
The Greens spent more than $6 million repairing and restoring the campus, which was closed when NMH consolidated to its Gill campus in 2005.
After millions in repairs and property taxes, the Greens off-loaded the property to the National Christian Foundation. Doing so earned a tax write-off for the Greens, and got rid of the campus they just couldn’t seem to give away.
Along with the empty campus, the NCF inherited the campus’ maintenance bills, and a long list of interested groups that can’t afford to pay them.
Jerry Pattengale, who spearheaded the search under the Greens, said it costs more than $1 million each year just to care for the empty campus.
The Greens intended to give the property to the CS Lewis College, a startup school named for the late evangelist and author of the “Chronicles of Narnia” book series, free of charge.
The only catch: the college’s foundation would have to raise $5 million by Dec. 31, 2011. The CS Lewis Foundation fell far short of the mark, and the Greens announced that they would consider other Christian organizations for the gift.
Suitors came out in droves — more than 100 of them — familiar with NMH founder Dwight L. Moody and his legacy of education and evangelism. By mid-year, two remained, and Grand Canyon University, of Arizona, was offered the campus in September 2012.
The school accepted, and announced plans to start the school with an initial 500 students, ramping up to 5,000 within a few years.
One month later, as residents wrapped their heads around the possibility of a mid-sized university just north of their downtown, the school backed out of the deal. The runner-up, the North American Mission Board, was no longer interested in the property for a 500-bed study and retreat center.
Though GCU never broke ground on the campus, the prospect of such a large institution sparked a lot of talk about the future of the town.
Some residents wanted to roll out the welcome mat for the college, and the economic shot-in-the-arm it might bring. Others wanted to keep the college out, citing huge impacts to the town’s infrastructure and schools. Though people on both sides spoke with passion, they discussed the issues, rather than arguing about them.
“The community learned that, if people talk to each one another with respect, the exchange of ideas can be very good,” said Alex Stewart.
Stewart is chairman of the Northfield Campus Collaborative, a town committee formed to discuss the campus’ transition. The committee has no authority, but it became a forum for residents to discuss the future of the campus.
Stewart said that has carried over into the crafting of the town’s new 20-year master plan.
“I think the town is more constructively focused on how it plans now,” Stewart said.
With the campus’ fate still uncertain, the town will have a little time to start implementing its new master plan before someone moves into the former 500-student boarding school.
One of the campus’ suitors has found a home in Northfield, a few miles from the former school.
Redemption Christian Academy, a boarding school from Troy, N.Y., opened a satellite location at the former Linden Hill School. Linden Hill closed after school ended in 2012, and Redemption bought the property in time to hold classes in January 2013.
While not much has happened on the campus, there has been news on nearby NMH properties that Hobby Lobby had an option to purchase.
The Green Pastures house was sold to the CS Lewis College Foundation this summer. The group hopes to turn the property into a CS Lewis study and conference center, including a base of operations for its college fundraising.
Edward Snow Jr., of Leyden, and his family hope to close on the NMH-owned Northfield Golf Club later this month. Snow’s company, Snow and Sons Tree and Landscaping, has run the course for the last two years, and recently came to a purchase agreement with the school.
Snow plans to continue operation of the nine-hole course, and hopes to add an expanded clubhouse and turn an old Victorian house into a bed and breakfast. He would also like to restore public access to the 52 acres of woods and wetland on the property, something many in the community are excited about.
A 22-acre Mill Street property, near the Connecticut River’s banks, was sold by NMH to a local man, who intends to build a home there.
Hobby Lobby has bought the Moody Homestead, and given it to the NCF. Minnich said it was purchased so that the house may stay with the campus.
Stewart said he’s glad the Homestead will go with the campus, as it serves as a gateway to the property.
Hobby Lobby retains the option to purchase several faculty houses around the empty campus through December. NMH has said the school would be willing to sell other Northfield holdings, including the East Northfield Water Company, which serves about 270 year-round and 62 seasonal customers, and about 2,000 acres of Northfield forestland.
Though the National Christian Foundation has been quiet regarding its search, Stewart remains hopeful.
“The foundation has a positive attitude toward Northfield, and they’re focused on getting it right,” he said. “For that reason, I think 2014 will be a pretty good year for the town.”
You can reach David Rainville at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 279