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GCU article angers Northfield

NORTHFIELD — An unfortunate choice of words in one reporter’s story has put the town in an uproar.

Monday, an article by Religion News Service reporter G. Jeffrey MacDonald cited Northfield’s refusal to help pay for $30 million in infrastructure upgrades and adversarial attitude for Grand Canyon University’s decision to pull out of plans for a 5,000-student college in town.

But Northfield officials never had a chance to decide whether to help with the costs or find grants that would.

Many residents feel the article, which ran in the Washington Post, gave the town a black eye in the national press, making it look unwelcoming and uncooperative.

“Not only would the town not help cover $30 million in sewer and road upgrades, but it also reportedly called on GCU to conduct an environmental impact study at the university’s expense,” read MacDonald’s story.

The comments, which did not appear in a direct quote, were attributed to Brian Mueller, president and CEO of GCU.

Northfielders were livid at the article’s implications that the town made a decision not to help fund those improvements, or to otherwise keep the college out.

Many were concerned about how the article may affect the perceptions other potential campus candidates have of the town.

Northfield officials have had no contact with GCU since the college was offered the property on Sept. 21, according to Town Administrator Tom Hutcheson. With no idea of what GCU may need to make its plan viable, town officials never had the chance to decide whether to help GCU make those upgrades.

No decision was made by the board regarding upgrades GCU may have needed.

MacDonald based his words on a phone interview with Mueller, and provided this reporter with excerpts from the transcription of the recorded call.

“It was clear that the local group (i.e., the town) wasn’t going to be able to provide anything,” read the transcript of Mueller’s words. “The local group was just so cash strapped that it was really unable to provide anything.”

In a follow-up interview, Mueller told The Recorder that MacDonald’s paraphrasing of his words missed their meaning.

MacDonald’s story mentioned some residents’ concerns about the changes a 5,000-student college would make to the town of about 3,000 residents. It did not, however, mention the part of town that was waiting eagerly for GCU to come in, revitalize their town, and spur the local economy and job market.

MacDonald also paraphrased Mueller, saying “GCU got little local cooperation.” Though there had been no official communication between the college and the town, several residents had voiced their concerns to GCU officials through emails.

Before and at the September announcement, Selectboard members met informally with GCU officials, and encouraged the college to be in contact with them. After the announcement, they waited for GCU to reach out and set up a meeting, or just give them a quick update, but they didn’t hear from the college at all.

Though the Selectboard had talked about asking GCU to pay for a study on the impact the college would have on the town, no request was ever made, though the prospect of one was too much for GCU.

“One of the things that pushed us over the edge was that they had a meeting and decided that an environmental study needs to be done and that Grand Canyon should bear the costs of that study,” read Mueller’s transcribed words. “It was at that point that we said, ‘the costs are mounting. It’s becoming increasingly clear that we’re going to bear the brunt of most of these costs.’”

The study may have been a moot point; the state requires an environmental impact study for construction on the scale GCU proposed.

In follow-up interviews, Mueller told this reporter that he didn’t blame the town. Mueller said it was regrettable that MacDonald’s article did not clarify that the town was unable, rather than unwilling, to offset the infrastructure costs.

Perhaps MacDonald’s article would have raised less ire in town if it had also included the following sentence from his interview with Mueller.

“In spite of our best intentions, and (Northfield’s) best intentions as well, we were coming to the conclusion that it just wasn’t going to work,” he said.

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