Campus in limbo

Consultant says it may be tough to find right match for Northfield

NORTHFIELD — The year will end much as it began for the former Northfield Mount Hermon School campus — in limbo.

This year, more than 100 religious groups toured the property, in hopes of securing the campus its owners, the Green family of Oklahoma, have spent more than $6 million repairing. Grand Canyon University, of Phoenix, Ariz., was chosen, but refused the campus last month.

Now, the process begins anew.

“People are going to come start looking at the campus again soon,” said Jerry Pattengale, a college administrator hired by the family to find a Christian organization with the wherewithal to sustain the campus.

He said the first groups will come to town in about three weeks. Pattengale himself will be in Russia, and will have someone else stand in as tour guide.

Twice in the past year, plans to give away the 217-acre campus have fallen through. Last month, Grand Canyon University announced that it would not accept the property on which it had planned to start a 5,000-student campus.

However, GCU officials say their use would’ve necessitated $30 million in infrastructure upgrades, on top of $150 million they’d planned on spending on repairs and construction on the campus itself. CEO Brian Mueller said that was just too much for the publicly traded, for-profit school to risk on the venture.

The scale of the college ran into less-tangible problems as well. Some residents, worried the large college would forever change their town, were vehemently opposed to it, about 10 regularly writing Pattengale and GCU to tell them the college was not welcome.

“This group of people in town was relentless with their phone calls to others and myself,” said Pattengale.

The original intended recipient, the startup C.S. Lewis College, proposed a smaller school, with 450 college students and another 450 in a performing arts school. However, the school was unable to raise $5 million by the end of 2011, to show the Greens that it was a viable endeavor. At that point, the college lost its exclusive consideration, though other suitors were encouraged to think about a partnership with the C.S. Lewis College.

“The reality is, if we gave (the C.S. Lewis College) the campus, they would’ve been bankrupt in two years,” said Pattengale.

Therein lies the challenge: finding a recipient small enough to fit the town, but with the financial capacity to make it sustainable.

NMH mothballed the campus in 2005, when it consolidated the school to its Gill campus. It was sold to the Greens in 2009 for $100,000. Though it was nowhere near NMH’s asking price of $20 million, the school was bleeding money by holding on to the property.

“It costs $2 million just to light and heat the campus’ buildings,” said Pattengale. That’s a hefty bill, too big for many of the interested groups to take on.

But there are options. Though Pattengale declined to name any interested parties at this point, he was willing to characterize them.

“There’s a liberal arts college from out west coming to look at it,” he said. “They’re one of the strongest liberal arts schools our there, as far as endowment.”

“Another group has called me more than 20 times,” he continued. “They want the whole campus for veterans’ health and wellness programs. But the Greens are trying to do something in the realm of education.”

Other groups include one from China that would like to start a language school, and team up with a Christian university, and a Christian organization focused on film production.

“I have no idea if these groups are going to make the finals,” said Pattengale. “I have to run their financials first.”

He said that can be a time-consuming, but necessary process.

Pattengale said one potential candidate has the means to use the campus, and fits the Greens’ bill of a Christian educational institution.

There’s just one problem.

“There’s another college about as big, and as conservative, as Liberty University,” he said. “But it’s hard to get excited, because of the town’s outcry against Liberty.”

Liberty was founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, who also started the Moral Majority, and in a “700 Club” interview blamed 9/11 on “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians,” among others.

That atmosphere of intolerance touched off a powder-keg of opinion in and around town. A local online forum was flooded with messages speaking out against the school, and NMH alums started an online petition to keep Liberty out of Northfield, calling it an “extremist, homophobic, and intellectually narrow institution.”

The school was not a serious contender, however, since it only wanted to use a portion of the campus, and the Greens wanted to give the entire property to a single group.

Finding what will fit in town and have the means to maintain the campus will take time. Pattengale said it could take a year to find a qualified recipient and complete preliminary paperwork for the transaction.

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

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