No free lunch, maybe, but a free Mass. prep school

Updated at: 09/02/2013 10:35 AM
By JAY LINDSAY

(AP) BOSTON - It’s big, beautiful and free, but a 217-acre former prep school campus in the hills of northern Massachusetts has also proved tough to give away.

Last year, an extensive effort to donate the Northfield campus by the billionaire family that owned it collapsed when the recipient unexpectedly backed out.

Its current owner, the National Christian Foundation, says it has narrowed its search down to five potential recipients as they consider suitors that aren’t exclusively Christian, dropping a condition of the prior search.

The top two or three candidates could be announced within a month and definitely will be by Christmas, said Aimee Minnich, president of the foundation’s Heartland office in Kansas.

Meanwhile, residents and business owners in the town of about 3,000 are ready to see new life at a campus that has been vacant for eight years, leaving a hole in the town’s social and economic life. Joan Stoia, co-owner of The Centennial House bed and breakfast on Main Street, said residents have learned to be patient.

"Quick doesn’t happen with this kind of decision, and that’s what we’re all learning," she said.

"What can we say?" she said. "We can’t make it any faster than it is. (The campus is) not ours; we don’t control it. So we’re here to be helpful in any way possible."

The campus is the former home of the Northfield Mount Hermon school, which was founded by 19th-century evangelist D.L. Moody.

The school moved out in 2005 to consolidate at another campus, but the property is still heavy with the aura of the exclusive New England prep school it once hosted. Its 43 buildings fill a rich, rolling stretch of the Connecticut River Valley with a stately mix of granite and brick.

The campus’ religious history lingers, as well. At Moody’s hilltop grave, pilgrims meet to join hands and pray.

The Green family, which founded and owns the Oklahoma-based Hobby Lobby craft store chain, bought the campus in 2009 intending to give it to a new college named after Christian apologist and writer C.S. Lewis.

That venture stalled, and the Greens offered it for free to candidates with traditional Christian beliefs and a commitment to honoring Moody’s legacy.

Grand Canyon University, a for-profit Christian school in Phoenix, was announced as the recipient last fall and planned eventually to house 5,000 students there. But it backed out weeks later, citing tens of millions of dollars in unanticipated building and infrastructure costs.

In December, the Greens gave the campus, and the job of finding a qualified owner, to the National Christian Foundation. The foundation had handled donated property from the Greens before.

The foundation’s main work is to help business owners fund charitable work worldwide, and Minnich said its contacts with businesses and nonprofits enabled it to cast a broad net for potential suitors. It tells each candidate that faith-based groups will be preferred, but it isn’t excluding secular groups.

"Secular organizations would be fine, but nothing opposed to what we stand for as an organization," Minnich said. "I can’t think of very many things that we would not consider."

Minnich won’t yet identify the remaining candidates or be specific about their plans. In general, she said, they include established and startup colleges, and collaborations that could combine various enterprises on campus, such as a museum or a retirement home.

One of first things the foundation vets is whether candidates know free campuses can be expensive to run, to avoid any sticker shock.

"People who are scared away by the size and scope of the campus are probably not going to be great candidates," Minnich said.

There has been considerable surprise from candidates who take a tour that the "free" in free campus doesn’t actually mean "run-down," Minnich said. "People have been pleasantly surprised by what’s here."

Northfield resident Alexander Stewart said the National Christian Foundation has impressed townspeople with its commitment to getting things right. The future of the campus is critical for Northfield, he said, but he added that he’s confident whatever finally comes will be good for the area.

"It’s a quiet town, waiting with considerable hope and not with a great deal of anxiety," Stewart said.

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)