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Campus changes hands

Hobby Lobby gives Northfield property  to Christian foundation

NORTHFIELD — The former Northfield Mount Hermon campus has a new foster parent, continuing the property’s ownership limbo with possible new tax implications for the town.

Recent owner Hobby Lobby Stores has donated the campus to the nonprofit National Christian Foundation, according to an announcement from the Northfield Mount Hermon School.

According to NMH, the National Christian Foundation announced Monday it is the new owner as of Dec. 28, Hobby Lobby Stores having made an irrevocable donation of the property.

Hobby Lobby has donated other properties to the Georgia-based charity in the past, according to the announcement, and “NCF will continue the work of finding a long-term owner for the property that will honor the legacy of D.L. Moody.”

Christian evangelist Dwight L. Moody founded the Northfield Seminary for Young Ladies in Northfield in 1879 and the Mount Hermon School for Boys in Gill in 1881, the two later merging to form NMH.

“I only know about the Hobby Lobby transfer what I read on the NMH website, therefore I’m going to defer further comment until I learn more about the implications to the town and what’s going to happen to the campus,” said Selectboard Chairwoman Kathleen Wright, returning a call for comment Monday.

Town Administrator Thomas Hutcheson also said Monday he had not been notified of the transfer and learned about it from the NMH website.

“We’re not entirely sure about the implications for the town at this point,” Hutcheson said. “We are looking into the tax status of the property. It is possible that it will be taxed according to use instead of ownership so that unless it is used as a nonprofit institution it may still be taxable, at least to some degree.”

The owners of the arts and crafts retail chain Hobby Lobby purchased the property in 2009 with plans to transfer the property to a Christian educational institution, paying about $400,000 in taxes per year in the interim.

According to Hutcheson, Hobby Lobby paid the town $861,865 in taxes over the past two years, which the Selectboard and Finance Committee have channelled into one-time capital improvements rather than significantly increasing the operating budget, contributing to $1,294,391 in improvements, equipment purchases and transfers to town savings funds.

Hutcheson said the timing of the transfer was not entirely surprising as the owner as of Jan. 1 is responsible for the taxes.

Beyond tax implications, any impact the transfer might have will depend on who the new owner ultimately chooses to give the property to, Hutcheson said.

“We’re just awaiting a decision about the institution itself. The effect on the town will depend on the institution that comes,” Hutcheson said. “Obviously the last candidate, Grand Canyon University, would have been a substantial change for the town because of the size of the institution.”

Hobby Lobby, owned by the Green family of Oklahoma, purchased the 217-acre campus for $100,000 in 2009, originally with plans to lease the property for a nominal fee to the C.S. Lewis Foundation, a Christian organization hoping to open C.S. Lewis College in Northfield.

That plan fell through and in September of last year Hobby Lobby announced the campus would be offered to Grand Canyon University, a for-profit Christian college that had initially planned to open in 2014 and build to an enrollment of 5,000.

In October, GCU withdrew, with company president and CEO Brian Mueller citing the cost of what he said were unanticipated infrastructure upgrades beyond the $150 million the college had planned to spend upgrading the campus originally designed for an enrollment of about 500.

Hobby Lobby real estate analyst Les Miller referred questions to National Christian Foundation spokesman Steve Chapman, who was not available for comment Monday.

Alex Stewart, chairman of the Northfield Campus Collaborative Committee, thanked the Greens and their agent Jerry Pattengale for their efforts in restoring the campus and searching for an occupant.

“We see this as an opportunity to work cooperatively with the National Christian Foundation, we will focus anew, with them, on how this storied campus and town can contribute to a vital educational enterprise,” Stewart said.

Formed three years ago, the collaborative committee has served as a public forum for residents and interested parties.

According to the NCF website, the foundation is the largest Christian grant-making organization in the world and has collected $5 billion in charitable contributions since its foundation in 1982 and given out more than $3.5 billion in grants.

NCF literature promises donors tax-smart donation strategies for money, real estate, business interest and other assets.

“Our team of seasoned gift planners specialize in maximizing powerful tax-savings opportunities to help your giving have the greatest possible impact. The result? Less to taxes, more to ministry, and more joy for you and your family,” reads a portion of the NCF donor brochure.

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