Mass. campus given to group to find new owner

AP News
Posted: Jan 02, 2013 11:50 PM

BOSTON (AP) — The Oklahoma company that tried and failed to give away a former prep school campus in Massachusetts has donated the property to a Christian foundation, which will continue looking for a permanent owner.

The Hobby Lobby craft store chain, founded and owned by the Green family, on Wednesday announced the donation to the National Christian Foundation, effective Dec. 28.

The announcement came two months after the Greens' extensive efforts to give away the 217-acre campus in Northfield for free suffered a huge setback when the recipient backed out. The company then turned to the Georgia-based foundation, which has handled donated property from the company previously.

"We had hoped to be able to find a qualified recipient of this property ourselves and made great efforts to do so," said Les Miller, a real estate analyst for Hobby Lobby. "When we were unable, we decided to enlist the help of NCF. ... We are confident they will be able to find a long-term owner for this property."

But the new owner may not get the campus for free. Aimee Minnich, president of the foundation's Heartland office in Kansas, said the best use of the campus "may include donation, sale, or some combination of those two."

The foundation also doesn't yet have explicit standards for an owner, as the Greens did. The family was seeking to find one owner with orthodox Christian beliefs who was committed to honoring the legacy of the prep school's founder, 19th century evangelist D.L. Moody. Minnich said Wednesday that the foundation is looking "for an end user that fits the history and culture of this beautiful campus."

Northfield Town Administrator Tom Hutcheson said the community is eager to welcome a new owner at the campus, which has been vacant since 2005, when the Northfield Mount Hermon prep school moved out to shed costs and consolidate at a nearby campus.

"It's been vacant for quite a while, too long, really, for the town to be comfortable," Hutcheson said. "I think that there aren't many people who would object to some group which fitted the campus coming in."

The Greens bought the campus in 2009 intending to give it to a new college named after Christian apologist and writer C.S. Lewis. When that venture stalled in December 2011 because of fundraising woes, the Greens decided to give the campus away.

The offer drew numerous groups for tours of the rolling campus near the New Hampshire and Vermont borders. Grand Canyon University was selected in September, and planned a $150 million investment that would bring 5,000 students to the town of about 3,000. But the Arizona school backed out weeks later, citing tens of millions in unanticipated building and infrastructure costs.

The Greens spent $5 million to upgrade the campus, but any new tenant would face expenses including the kinds of possible upgrades that spooked Grand Canyon and $1 million in annual utility bills.

During the Green's search, Northfield residents of liberal Massachusetts voiced concerns about prospective owners for various reasons, including their conservative Christianity and — in Grand Canyon's case — a large influx of residents to the small town. But other residents are desperate for a new tenant and the new life and commerce it can bring.

Hutcheson said he knows nothing about the National Christian Foundation's plans, though Minnich said the group has scheduled a trip next week to meet residents. Hutcheson said robust communication among the foundation, interested owners and the town's decision-makers would help the new relationship.

"That was one thing that we didn't have last time. People were interested in the campus as a campus and, as we saw, were not entirely well informed as to the community into which they would be moving," he said. "A dialogue would be useful."