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Northfield has time to get ready for college

NORTHFIELD — As Grand Canyon University seeks state accreditation, the town has a chance to prepare for the coming of the college.

“We have some time now to do our work (as a town) and be prepared to enter into a serious conversation with GCU,” said Alex Stewart, chairman of the Northfield Campus Collaboritive Committee.

“The time is now to present who we are, what we are, and what we want to be (as a town),” said Stewart.

The way the college and the town were brought together was unique — neither one actively sought the other out. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., of Oklahoma, bought the campus in 2009 with the intent to give it to the startup C.S. Lewis College, but those plans fell through. The company began to search for another recipient in January, and settled on GCU.

“It’s kind of like an arranged marriage,” said Stewart. “The bride and the groom don’t really know each other, yet they’re expected to enter into a permanent relationship.”

While the college seeks state, national and regional accreditation to run a Massachusetts campus, conversations between the town and college have been put on hold.

“We understand the community is anxious to know specific plans, but we would ask them to be patient until the necessary approvals are obtained,” said GCU spokesman William Jenkins. He said GCU hopes to have those approvals and accept the property by the end of the year. While GCU seeks accreditation, said Jenkins, it continues to evaluate the 217-acre campus’ 43 buildings, to determine what may be usable for a possible 2014 opening.

Though GCU’s exact plans remain a mystery, Northfield can look to other towns with colleges, to find out what may be coming.

“Our town’s boards may consider visiting towns that have dealt with the same kind of issues,” said Susan Ross. “We could ask those towns’ boards what kind of issues arose, what mistakes were made, things like that.”

Some collaborative members already visited college towns Henniker, N.H., and Williamstown. Henniker is home to about 1,747 residents as of the 2010 census, and hosts the 1,500-student New England College. Williamstown is home to 4,325 residents and Williams College, with about 2,250 students.

Town Administrator Tom Hutcheson suggested that Northfield’s boards and committees meet with each other and discuss the coming of the college.

Though boards and committees in town are encouraged to reach out and gather information, the Selectboard has asked them to forward their questions, concerns, and comments for GCU to Hutcheson, so the board may act as Northfield’s liaison to the college. The goal is to give the town a singular voice, and eliminate potential miscommunication.

Hutcheson said the down-time gives the town’s officials and citizens a chance to sort out their differences.

“It’s important that we not fight our own internal battles using GCU as a sounding board,” said Hutcheson. “Instead, we should work them out before we go to GCU.”

If the town is caught up in those internal arguments, said Hutcheson, it will be more difficult to come together effectively on GCU-related matters.

The collaborative has met since 2009, when the C.S. Lewis College was expected to come to town. When it was announced that Hobby Lobby would seek other recipients, the collaborative’s meetings began to fill with dozens of citizens who wanted to share their concerns and pose questions on the coming transition. Lately, however, attendance has dropped to a handful of residents.

Because of the amount of input the collaborative has received from citizens, as well as the impact the college will have on the town, Hutcheson suggested that members meet with the town’s Master Plan Steering Committee. The new college will figure heavily into the master plan, creating a large overlap of subject matter for the two committees.

The town approved $75,000 for a master plan consultant at the May annual town meeting, and the steering committee is in the process of interviewing possible consultants.

With GCU’s plans on hold while the school seeks accreditation, the collaborative seeks the Selectboard’s guidance to establish its role going forward.

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

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