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Owner mulls campus future

NORTHFIELD — The new owners of the former Northfield Mount Hermon School campus said they’d prefer that the property be used again for education.

“We’re committed to maintaining the spirit with which the campus was founded, so our first intent would be to find an educational institution as the final owner of the property,” said Aimee Minnich, president of the National Christian Foundation’s “heartland” office in Kansas City, Kan.

Last month, Hobby Lobby Stores donated the 217-acre campus and its 43 buildings to the NCF. After two failed attempts to give the property to Christian colleges, Hobby Lobby owners, Oklahoma’s Green family, decided to give it to the NCF, who will take over the search for a permanent owner.

The NCF acts as an intermediary for tax-deductible donations. Donors give money, property, or other assets to the organization, which helps maximize the donor’s tax benefit.

Property donations vary, from condominiums and summer homes to developable real estate, and now the 217-acre campus. Minnich said that, in the past six years, the foundation has received more than $600 million in non-cash donations.

Often, when the NCF receives a real estate donation, the group turns around and sells it, and gives the money received to non-profit causes.

This is often done as quickly as possible, but Minnich said there is no specific timetable or deadline at the moment. She also said the property could be sold or donated to the final recipient, or a combination of both.

Minnich said the NCF would prefer the campus wind up in the hands of a school. However, since the property is now being handled by the NCF, Hobby Lobby’s criteria of a Christian recipient in education or another non-profit field no longer strictly applies.

“Hobby Lobby may make recommendations about the final distribution of the property, but they have placed no restrictions on us for the process,” wrote Minnich.

The NCF website says donors typically give the foundation suggestions for donations, but the decision lies with the NCF in the end.

The NCF gives to thousands of charities. Its record of donations may be found by viewing its tax filing forms. Visit nccsdataweb.urban.org/PubApps/search.php, and looking up “National Christian Charitable Foundation,” the donation-making branch of the NCF.

“We only give to IRS-approved charities,” said NCF spokesman Steve Chapman. “Most are Christian in nature, but we regularly make grants to secular charities.”

Chapman said the NCF does not give to political campaigns or lobbyists.

Chapman said it is too soon to tell if the NCF will continue the property improvements made by Hobby Lobby, but said the group plans to maintain the property “likely in the same fashion as Hobby Lobby.”

While the campus was in Hobby Lobby’s hands, the for-profit retailer was paying more than $400,000 in annual property taxes to Northfield. Since Hobby Lobby signed the campus over days before the new year, the company is off the hook for this year’s tax bill.

When the campus was owned and used by NMH, it was tax-exempt.

Though the property is now owned by a non-profit group, if the property isn’t being used for non-profit purposes, the NCF may have to pay taxes on it.

Chapman said the foundation is still trying to determine the property’s tax status, and that it may take weeks or more to find an answer.

“We are still in the very early stages of the entire process,” said Chapman. “We will refine our plans and strategy over the coming weeks.”

Minnich said the NCF is now getting to know the town and the campus.

“We’ve studied the history of the attempts of NMH to sell the property and of Hobby Lobby to donate it,” wrote Minnich.

When NMH consolidated to its Gill campus in 2005, the campus was put on the market for about $20 million. There were no takers, and Hobby Lobby ended up paying just $100,000 for the property. The company has since put more than $5 million into repairs and renovations to many of its 43 buildings, and said it’s paid more than $1 million per year in utility bills on the vacant campus.

Hobby Lobby’s original recipient, the startup C.S. Lewis College, was unable to raise a target $5 million by the end of 2011, and Grand Canyon University declined the campus five weeks after being offered it in September, citing $30 million in unanticipated infrastructure costs.

Though Hobby Lobby’s attempts to donate the property had failed, Minnich said she hopes the NCF will continue the relationships the company started with the community.

Minnich said NCF representatives will visit the campus this month and meet with various community leaders.

Selectboard members and Town Administrator Tom Hutcheson said last week they had not yet been contacted by anyone from the NCF.

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

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