2 finalists named for free campus in western Mass.

AP News
Posted: Jun 05, 2012 6:34 PM
2 finalists named for free campus in western Mass.

The billionaire family from Oklahoma that's giving away a 217-acre campus in western Massachusetts has narrowed the potential recipients to two.

Grand Canyon University, a for-profit Christian school in Arizona, and the North American Mission Board, the Southern Baptist Convention's missions and evangelism arm, are the last groups in the running for the Northfield site.

The two were chosen from a parade of Christian groups that have toured the former campus of the Northfield Mount Hermon prep school, founded by 19th century evangelist D.L. Moody.

"Both finalists will be able to carry on (Moody's) heritage for another century," said Steve Green, president of the Oklahoma City-based Hobby Lobby craft store chain and member of the family that's giving away the campus.

Grand Canyon, which has 7,000 traditional students and 40,000 online students at its Phoenix campus, would establish a second campus, where it hopes to draw as many as 4,800 traditional students and base its online student enrollment in the Northeast.

The Southern Baptist board would train some of the 1,000 missionaries it sends out annually to start churches in the U.S. and Canada. The campus would also become a foundation for denominational expansion in the Northeast, and a badly needed retreat center for some of the convention's tens of thousands of pastors.

Both finalists are being asked to consider making space at the campus for the Redemption Christian Academy, a historically black prep school in upstate New York that was interested in moving there.

The Greens are expected to make a decision in the next several weeks.

The family bought the property in 2009, five years after the prep school left to escape deferred maintenance and other costs. They value the campus at $20 million, though they bought it for $100,000 because the previous owners wanted out. They intended to give it to a new college named for Christian scholar C.S. Lewis, but those plans fell through, so the Greens offered to give the campus to a theologically conservative Christian group that promised to honor Moody's legacy.

Since January, 53 groups have been invited to tour the classic New England campus, which lines the Connecticut River Valley to the east and rises high enough to glimpse neighboring New Hampshire and Vermont.

Even a free campus isn't cheap, so it was mandatory for serious prospects to demonstrate sound financial footing. The Greens have spent about $5 million to make the campus move-in ready, but the new tenant can't avoid $1 million in annual utility costs, as well as any other expenses to make the campus fit its specific needs.

The new tenant will also have to fit its conservative Christian vision in a town with liberal leanings. When Liberty University, founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, cast its eyes on the property, some Northfield Mount Hermon alumni objected, calling Falwell's views "hateful." Aaron Coe, vice president for mobilization at the Mission Board, said he expects skepticism about the Southern Baptists, but one of their first concerns would be discerning how they can serve local residents and share the campus.

"Our posture is to come in as good neighbors," he said.

The 4,800 students Grand Canyon plans to attract are about 4,000 more than the campus has ever held, said Jerry Pattengale, whom the Greens hired to help find a new owner.

Brian Mueller, Grand Canyon's chief executive, said the significant building they'd need to do in Northfield could provide a major boost to the local economy, but it would be undertaken only with heavy consultation with residents. He added he hopes the school's vision of providing affordable private education to low-income students resonates locally.

"Everybody has to win in this thing, or it doesn't work," he said.

Alexander Stewart, chairman of a town committee monitoring the sale, said he's looking forward to learning more and finding common ground.

"These finalists are uniquely different institutions, with their own distinctive contributions to be made," Stewart said.