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Northfield eyes greater role in campus plans

— Town government needs to take a more proactive role in the future of the former Northfield Mount Hermon School campus, says a committee focused on the transition.

“I think we need to start having the town government think about the challenges that will arise with entities that may come to the campus,” said Kathy Wright, member of the Northfield Campus Collaborative, and Selectboard chairwoman.

Grand Canyon University’s plans for a 5,000-student campus proved too big for the infrastructure of Northfield, a town of about 3,000, to handle. GCU refused the campus, saying their plans would require an unanticipated $30 million in infrastructure upgrades, mainly to roads and the sewer system. That was too much for the publicly traded, for-profit college to risk on the deal, when added to $150 million the school planned to pour into on-campus development and repairs.

With 5,000 students decidedly too much, the question is, where is the tipping point?

“We need to identify what we can and can’t absorb,” and inform the campus’s owners, the Green family, said Wright.

Many agreed that more communication with the Greens could have saved some headaches in their latest attempt to give away the 217-acre campus.

“The Greens have always kept the town at arm’s length,” said collaborative member Bruce Kahn. Had that not been the case, “they may have realized long ago that a 5,000-student school will not work.” Kahn said the town will need to convince the Greens that it’s in their best interest to have the town involved as they look for a new recipient.

The Greens didn’t buy the campus with the intention of bringing anything the size of GCU to town. At its peak, the NMH campus was home to about 700 live-in students and faculty, and the first intended recipient wouldn’t have expanded it by much.

The Greens, Oklahoma billionaires and owners of arts-and-crafts chain Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., bought the campus in 2009, to fix it up and give it to the start-up C.S. Lewis College, which planned to have 450 college students and another 450 in a school of performing arts to be opened later.

The deal hit a wall when the school couldn’t hit a $5 million Dec. 31 fundraising goal set by the Greens, and the family began to look for other Christian organizations to take the campus.

They found more than 100 groups interested in the campus, but few they felt had the financial capacity to take it on and make it work. GCU was one, and the North American Mission Board was the other. NAMB planned a 400-bed training and retreat center for the campus, but backed out of the running, leaving only GCU.

The Greens, who have already spent more than $6 million fixing up the campus’ buildings, will now face another year’s bills, with maintenance costs estimated at more than $1 million by NMH officials. And then there’s the matter of taxes.

As long as the Greens own the campus, Northfield will receive an annual $420,000 in property taxes which NMH was exempted from. However, as much as the extra revenue may help a town with a $6.6 million operating budget, many believe the money is a drop in the bucket compared to the benefits the town would reap with the campus being used and drawing people to town.

Wright feels it’s extremely important to have the campus occupied, preferably as a small college or prep school. Collaborative members pointed out that, with the campus vacant since NMH consolidated to its Gill campus in 2005, the town’s property values have sagged, its businesses are struggling, and the number of jobs in town have dropped sharply.

Soon, the Greens will begin the search anew. Jerry Pattengale, a college administrator brought in by the Greens to help find a recipient, said it will likely be a yearlong process.

“Everyone’s a bit bruised (by GCU’s refusal), but it gives us insight, and the opportunity for a fresh start,” said Alex Stewart, chairman of the collaborative. “We can be stronger, and better prepared as we move ahead.” Northfield will be updating its master plan, shaping a vision for the town’s future, while the Greens look for another recipient.

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