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Hopeful meeting with Northfield campus owner

NORTHFIELD — The town has started a dialogue with the new owners of the former Northfield Mount Hermon School campus.

“I thought it was very good that they took the time to meet with us and hear our concerns,” said Selectboard member Jack Spanbauer.

Late last week representatives of the National Christian Foundation, in town to take a look at the campus and area, held an informal meet-and-greet session in Town Hall.

Aimee Minnich, president of the foundation’s “heartland” office in Kansas City, Kan., said the NCF is in the “getting to know you” phase, learning about the campus, the town, the people and the region.

There haven’t been any major developments since former owners, Hobby Lobby Stores and the Green family of Oklahoma, donated the property to the NCF, but Minnich met with town officials to make inroads and start a relationship with Northfield.

“The Greens and Grand Canyon University never met with town government officials, so I feel we’re already one step toward going in the right direction,” said Spanbauer.

The Greens bought the campus in 2009, intending to give it to the C.S. Lewis College, which failed to meet fundraising goals set by the Greens. At the beginning of 2012, the Greens began to search for a recipient with the finances to take on the campus, and offered it to GCU in late September.

GCU officials were available for a meet-and-greet at the September announcement, where they shook hands and exchanged pleasantries with a few town officials and residents over crackers and cheese.

That was the last contact town government had with the college before it withdrew. As the town waited to hear, GCU officials told The Recorder they hadn’t been in contact with the town because there was no news to give.

Five weeks after the announcement, GCU backed out of the deal, citing the town’s inability to help pay $30 million in unanticipated infrastructure upgrades needed to use the campus as proposed.

Two months later, with the new year looming and a $400,000 property tax bill coming with it, the Greens gave the campus to the NCF on Dec. 28, without a word to the town. Now, it’s up to NCF to find a new owner.

The tax status under the foundation’s nonprofit ownership of the vacant campus remains in question, and the town and the foundation continue to look into the matter.

Northfield has been less than pleased with the way the Greens have handled the property, the future of which many see as vital to the once bustling town turned bedroom community.

“We were very frank (with the foundation) about our disappointment with the Greens and GCU, and how much we appreciated (Minnich and others) coming out,” Spanbauer said. “It really was a great meeting.”

Kathy Wright, Selectboard chairwoman, said she was relieved to be able to meet with the group, even if there’s not much news at this point.

“We were pleased that they sat down with us so early in the process,” she said. “It was a different start (than the town had with the Greens), and we found it appropriate that they came to sit and talk with us first, to understand the town where some organization will be setting down its seat.”

She said the difficulties encountered with GCU were explained to the foundation. Though many residents feared the changes a 5,000-student college would bring to the town of 3,000, Wright said she made it clear to the new owners that the town wants to see the campus used again; it’s just going to need the right fit.

Alexander Stewart, chairman of the Northfield Campus Collaborative, said he also thought the meet and greet went well.

“They seemed to want to learn as much as they can about the depth and width of the community.”

Stewart’s committee was formed to listen to residents and other stakeholders and report back to the Selectboard. Its meetings have served as a forum for residents, widely attended from the time GCU announced it was in the running last summer. Residents for and against the college’s plans came out en masse and had a thorough, civil conversation on the matter, and experts were occasionally brought in to address infrastructure, economic and other concerns.

Stewart said he got the impression that the foundation is looking at the campus, the town, and the region as a whole, rather than focusing on the campus alone.

“They want to get acquainted with the community, they’re asking questions about the area and they’re listening,” he said. “They’re here to learn, and they’ve got an open attitude. They seemed to be caring, and to want to take the time to do things right.”

Stewart said his committee will meet as regularly scheduled, but he doesn’t expect there to be much to talk about until the foundation announces some sort of plan or timetable.

Though details on the campus’ future remain hazy, the lines of communication have been opened. Town officials hope to maintain a dialogue with the foundation, and work with the group as it seeks a recipient for the campus.

The foundation has not laid out a timetable or deadline for the campus’ transition.

Minnich said the foundation hopes to find an educational institution to receive the property and carry on its tradition of learning.

The Greens sought to give the campus away, but the foundation has said the group may give away the campus, sell it, or some combination of the two.

The foundation regularly handles property donations, maximizing tax deductions for donors. In cases where it sells a property, the money received is then donated to charities. In 2012, the foundation gave more than $500 million to religious and secular nonprofit groups.

The Greens bought the 217-acre school for $100,000, much lower than the $20 million NMH sought when it first put the property on the market after consolidating to its Gill campus in 2005. With trouble getting anyone to pay their asking price, NMH sold to the Greens, who put more than $5 million into restoring the campus during the three years they owned it.

Before GCU withdrew, college spokesman William Jenkins said many of the campus’ 43 buildings still needed work to be brought into compliance with current building codes before they can be used.

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

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