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Hobby Lobby awards Northfield campus to GCU

Greenfield Recorder 09/22/2012, Page A01


Recorder Staff

NORTHFIELD — This sleepy little town of 3,000 may soon become the county’s newest college town with more students than local residents.

Friday, Grand Canyon University was announced as the recipient of the former Northfield Mount Hermon School campus.

“The choice became simple when the North American Mission Board sent us an email, and said they would defer the offer to GCU,” said Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby Stores, which bought the campus in 2009. “I was already leaning toward GCU, because they had a more robust plan than the NAMB.”

GCU, a for-profit Christian college based in Arizona, still needs to conduct a full engineering study of the campus, expected to cost $60,000 to $75,000, before accepting the property.

After all the necessary administrative and legal aspects of the transition have been handled, which is expected by year’s end, the Greens will sign the property over to Scholarships for GCU Students, a nonprofit which will lease the property to the for-profit GCU.

This detail, revealed in a press release but not at Friday’s well-attended announcement, initially caused some alarm among Selectboard members, since the town has looked forward to the real-estate taxes it would receive with the property in for-profit hands.

But David Bachus, chief financial officer of GCU, allayed their fears by clarifying that it was merely a formality.

“We fully intend to pay property taxes,” he said. The property was gifted to the nonprofit group to allow the Greens and Hobby Lobby to claim it as a charitable donation.

Since the Greens bought the 217-acre campus, it has netted Northfield about $400,000 per year. If GCU develops the campus, the property value and taxes or payments assessed would rise.

“Our financial models include property taxes,” said Bachus. “If, for some reason, we don’t have to pay property taxes, we would give to the town in other ways.”

NMH historically made payments in lieu of taxes, as do the private schools like Deerfield Academy in Old Deerfield.

Bachus said GCU would seek to enter a PILOT agreement with Northfield if it avoids real estate taxes.

GCU plans to begin classes in the fall of 2014, with as many as 500 students and 50 employees. Officials hope to ramp up to an enrollment of about 5,000 by 2018, with about 600 employees.

The college will look to Franklin County for many of those new hires, said Brian Mueller, president and CEO of GCU.

They also plan to spend as much as $150 million on capital improvements to the campus by 2018, with developments to begin as early as spring of 2013.

To host 5,000 students on a campus built for 500, GCU will have to build. Mueller said he expects most of those students to live on campus. He said GCU would renovate existing dormitories, and build new ones.

They also plan to bring a wide array of athletic teams, including crew, soccer, and basketball, which they hope to begin the year they open.

“We’re excited to begin a full athletic program here,” said Mueller. “We already have 21 Division II teams in Phoenix.”

GCU’s Phoenix campus is home to about 7,000 students. Another 42,000 take classes online through GCU.

GCU and the NAMB were the two finalists selected from about 100 groups that were being considered since January. Once the NAMB backed out, GCU became the clear winner.

The billionaire Green family of Oklahoma made the announcement Friday following a VIP luncheon in the campus’ Olivia Music Hall, attended by town officials, state Rep. Paul Mark, Steve Green, GCU higher-ups and others. The announcement, in the renovated Sage Chapel, was followed by a panel discussion on the future of Christian higher education, and the day concluded with a reception at the Auditorium, where the public had a chance to meet GCU officials.

Hundreds attended the announcement, but many left as the panel discussion began, and a few dozen were left to attend the reception.

GCU classes could be in session in as little as two years, but the school has a lot of work to do before then. It needs to seek accreditation from the U.S. Department of Higher Education, the state Department of Education, and New England Association of Schools and Colleges.

GCU officials will also begin conversations with town government and Northfield residents. Mueller said that would take place in the months ahead, along with a number of events to introduce GCU to the community.

“I’m looking forward to meeting them, and finding out their plans,” said Selectboard member Jack Spanbauer. “A lot of the work is on their end, with permitting, accreditation, and infrastructure on the campus.”

“Size is a concern,” said Selectboard Chairwoman Kathy Wright. “That’s why we hope to sit with them and talk about the issue of campus size.”