A billionaire family from Oklahoma has turned a no-stoplight town in Massachusetts into an essential destination for Christian institutions nationwide with one extraordinary promise.
They've pledged to give away a 217-acre campus there for free.
Free, it turns out, is an appealing price for the campus founded by famed evangelist D.L. Moody and estimated by its owner to be worth $20 million.
In recent months, the western Massachusetts property has drawn a stream of secret and not-so-secret visitors.
Each suitor must commit to offer an education founded on traditional Christian beliefs and prove they have the money to maintain this sprawling, classic New England campus.
"It's spectacular. It's spectacular. That's all I can say," said Tracy Davis, academic dean of California-based Olivet University, as she walked the grounds last Thursday.
Locals are ready to welcome new neighbors. But there's concern about who's moving in, including how a conservative Christian institution will mesh in a town of about 3,000 in this notably liberal state.
"We hope that whatever's here can bring people together and not divide," said Alexander Stewart, chair of a town committee monitoring the sale.
The campus was once home to the Northfield Mount Hermon prep school, which was founded as a girls' school by Moody in 1879. The rolling property lines the Connecticut River Valley to the east and climbs high enough to offer views into neighboring New Hampshire and Vermont.
But in 2005, Northfield Mount Hermon left to consolidate at another nearby campus, escaping more than $1 million in annual utility costs and the deferred maintenance on a century's worth of august, but aging, stone and brick buildings.
The campus now belongs to the Green family, who own the Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby craft store chain. They bought it for $100,000 in 2009, intending to give it to a new college named for Christian scholar C.S. Lewis.
That venture stalled in December amid fundraising woes. The C.S. Lewis Foundation, which is starting the college, says it hasn't given up on establishing a school at the Northfield campus, but the uncertainty prompted the Greens to begin a search for another owner. The market to resell the campus doesn't currently exist, said Hobby Lobby president Steve Green. So the family made the campus and its 43 buildings available to select institutions that can meet their criteria.
After $5 million in renovations, the campus is now move-in ready, but expensive to keep that way. Green said he'd like to transfer the grounds to the new owners by at least the end of the year.
But he added the priority is finding the right tenant, and spoke of restoring Moody's original intent to create a place to teach and train people to share Biblical truth. That legacy remains part of even the vacant campus. Busloads of Christians from South Korea, where Moody's ministry had a deep impact, still climb to join hands and pray around Moody's hilltop grave.
"We would love to see the property be used for a great Christian ministry, and if we help somebody to get that started without a lot of heartburn ... and be a light in the area, that would be our primary goal," Green said.
The Greens, through Jerry Pattengale, a college administrator they hired to help find a new owner, originally invited 15 top Christian institutions to take a look, and 11 have visited. About nine others have been allowed to inspect the grounds as news of the offer has spread, and more requests are coming daily, Pattengale said. So far, Olivet, Azusa Pacific University and Liberty University are among the schools whose names have gone public.
Any institution whose interest in the property survives an initial vetting of their plans and finances will be required to provide a detailed proposal, Pattengale said.
Liberty's interest prompted some Northfield Mount Hermon alumni to petition the school's board of trustees to protest any sale to the university, citing what they called the "divisive and hateful" views of its founder, the late Rev. Jerry Falwell. Residents have also met to discuss concerns about Virginia-based Liberty and the fate of the campus.
But Northfield Mount Hermon has no say over what the Greens decide to do with the property, and Liberty is not likely a top contender, anyway. To make the transaction as simple as possible, the family prefers to give the campus to someone who will take it all, and Liberty has discussed assuming control of only a portion of it.
Green added such protests would matter "very little" to the family if it felt it had found a good suitor who would also be a good neighbor. "You'll never please everybody and we understand that," he said.
Northfield itself is scenic and sleepy, with no traffic lights or even gas stations to slow down a trip to somewhere else. The campus, right off the main road, has a new shine, but its emptiness gives it the air of an exclusive boarding school on eternal spring break.
Corinne Allen, owner of Rooster's Bistro on Main Street in Northfield, said Hobby Lobby's decision can't come soon enough. She bought her restaurant shortly before Northfield Mount Hermon decided to pull out and is anxious to serve the customer base of students, their families and alumni she thought she was inheriting.
Many are pleased a Christian institution is coming and want to make things work, said Allen.
"I do believe the town loves the campus; nobody wants to see it go to waste," she said. "In the end, the campus is the town, and it always has been."