GCU backs out of Northfield campus
Northfield waste water treatment plant.
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Northfield Reservoir flows over the spillway on Tuesday.
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NORTHFIELD — Grand Canyon University has announced that it no longer plans to make Northfield its new home.
Brian Mueller, GCU’s president and CEO, in a Religion News Service article, said GCU backed out because the town refused to help cover $30 million in infrastructure upgrades to help pave the way for the college, and that many in town were opposed to GCU’s coming.
However, the town never had a chance to hear GCU’s needs, much less refuse to help. Northfield officials have had no official contact with GCU since the college was awarded the campus on Sept. 21.
Mueller said Monday’s Religion News Service article was inaccurate in saying Northfield was at fault.
“We’re not blaming the town at all,” said Mueller Tuesday. He added that the Religion News Service reporter misquoted him in saying that Northfield refused to pay for part of the upgrades.
Mueller said GCU officials never expected the small town of 3,000 to be able to share infrastructure costs.
“We were pretty aware of the town’s inability to contribute,” said Mueller. “We were not aware of the $30 million price tag on the infrastructure upgrades.”
While looking into the logistics of bringing a 5,000-student school to the small town, the cost of upgrading roads and sewer services kept growing, he said.
“They never approached us and told us what they needed,” said Kathy Wright, Selectboard chairwoman.
Mueller said the town was never approached because he and other officials knew Northfield wouldn’t be able to help fund the needed upgrades.
Whether the town would’ve been willing to share infrastructure costs with GCU may never be known. Such spending would need to be approved at town meeting, and with GCU out, the issue won’t come to a vote.
The announcement did not come as a shock to everyone.
“I’m not surprised (to hear they’ve pulled out),” said Selectboard member Jack Spanbauer. “It’s been six weeks since the announcement, and there’s been zero communication.”
“We never had a chance to speak with them,” said Tom Hutcheson, town administrator. He said the town was waiting for GCU to reach out and set up a meeting.
“I take strong exception to the college saying that the town was averse to its coming,” said Spanbauer. “They’ve misrepresented the whole situation.”
He said the college has had ample time to look into the obstacles it faced in coming to Northfield.
“I brought up those infrastructure issues at a (Northfield Campus) Collaborative meeting months ago,” said Spanbauer. The Collaborative is an information-gathering committee formed to advise the Selectboard on the transition of the former Northfield Mount Hermon School campus.
While campus owners Hobby Lobby Stores and the billionaire Green family of Oklahoma were still sorting through potential recipients, infrastructure issues were raised at the collaborative’s meetings. Townspeople brought up concerns about drinking water and sewer system capacities, a need for traffic mitigation and road improvements, and other issues at those meetings, several of which were held in the months before the campus’ fate was announced.
Mueller said GCU was aware of the types of upgrades needed, but did not expect the cost to be so high.
After the announcement, the college said it planned to spend $150 million on upgrades to the property and infrastructure over a five-year span. But Monday, GCU announced that the extra $30 million in upgrades was too much for it to take on.
In the past 2 years, the school has had $300 million in construction and renovation projects on its Phoenix, Ariz. campus. Mueller said GCU will now focus its efforts there.
Though several residents have relayed their concerns and comments to GCU officials since the Greens listed the college as one of two finalists, the Selectboard, through Hutcheson, was to act as the only official liaison between the town and school.
Selectboard members Wright, Spanbauer and Dan Gray have said they haven’t heard word one from GCU since the September announcement.
Finance Committee Chairwoman Lois Stearns said the college hasn’t reached out to her or the committee either.
“I haven’t heard from GCU throughout this whole process,” said Stearns. “We’ve had no discussion of finances or anything else with them.”
“Their silence has made people begin to wonder what’s going on,” she added. “Now, we know.”
GCU had planned to hold its first classes in 2014, opening with about 500 students, and building toward 5,000 by 2018. The 217-acre campus and its 43 buildings once hosted 700 live-in faculty and students when operated by NMH.
Hobby Lobby and the Greens have announced that they will again seek a qualified recipient for the campus they’ve spent more than $6 million renovating.
The Greens bought the campus in 2009 with the intent of giving it to the startup C.S. Lewis college. When the college failed to meet a $5 million fundraising goal by the end of 2011, the Greens began to search for another recipient.
GCU, a publicly traded, for-profit Christian college with revenues in the hundreds of millions, had the financial stability the Greens were looking for.
“We were disheartened when Grand Canyon University had to reverse its decision on the Northfield campus, but we also understand the various issues they may have faced in making this decision,” wrote Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby. “However, many groups have expressed an interest in the campus — partly because of its wonderful facilities and partly due to its link with D.L. Moody — and we will begin a new search soon.”
That search is expected to take as long as a year, said Jerry Pattengale, a college administrator who worked with the Greens to find a suitable recipient for the campus.
For J. Stanley Mattson, C.S. Lewis College president and founder, the announcement by GCU brings renewed hope.
“As we have noted on many occasions, our hearts and minds have, from the very outset, been deeply moved by a sense of calling to Northfield, and in this we have not wavered, even while actively exploring other options,” he wrote in a news release. “For the present, it appears a glimmer of light may have returned to the Northfield option.”
The C.S. Lewis college has been looking for another home, preferably in the five-college region, since failing to secure the Northfield campus.
David Rainville can be reached at:
or 413-772-0261, ext. 279