Hobby Lobby founders close to giving school property in Massachusetts

by Rachael Duane

NORTHFIELD, Mass. — An evangelical family known for its philanthropy has narrowed the search for a recipient for its latest gift-a 217-acre school property in Massachusetts-to two finalists.

The Green family, which owns craft superstore Hobby Lobby, purchased the Northfield, Mass. campus in 2009. After spending $5 million to refurbish the property, the family invited 53 schools and organizations to tour the campus and make proposals for what they would do with it. Last week, family patriarch Steve Green announced Grand Canyon University and the North American Mission Board as the two finalists. Within the next several weeks, the family will give the campus to one of these groups-for free.

When Northfield Mount Hermon Prep School, an elite coed school, relinquished ownership of its 43-building campus in Sept. 2005, it left the future of the sprawling property uncertain. Five years later, the Green family bought the property with the intention of giving it to The C.S. Lewis College, a newly founded university. After the school's founders failed to meet a fundraising deadline, those plans fell through, leaving the fate of the Northfield campus uncertain once more.

In the process of selecting a recipient for the campus, the Green family has sought out theologically conservative Christian groups to carry on the vision of D.L. Moody, founder of Northfield Mount Hermon Prep. However, as the history of the campus shows, financial stability has been a tripping point. The Greens estimate the entire campus is worth $20 million and want to make sure whoever takes it over has the resources to maintain it.

Grand Canyon University (GCU) is a for-profit Christian college in Phoenix, Ariz., about two hours from its namesake. GCU offers a variety of graduate and undergraduate programs, including the Ken Blanchard College of Business and the College of Christian Studies. But the majority of GCU students are working towards nursing degrees-a trend towards specialty in professional fields common to for-profit schools.

GCU also emphasizes online education. BestCollegesOnline.com named one of its professors-LeAnne Prenovost-as the 2012 Online College Professor of the Year. GCU's emphasis on catering to its students logistically is central to its mission. The university website states that its students "have the flexibility of attending class in the way that best fits their lifestyle." A second campus in Northfield would give the school an opportunity to expand admissions numbers by about 4000 students. The campus also would serve as a base for the university's northeastern online students.

Although the Green family initially planned to give the campus to a school, the second finalist does not plan to operate a university on the property. The North American Mission Board (NAMB), an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, works with churches, associations, and state conventions to train and send out missionaries and church planters.

If it wins the bid for the property, the NAMB would use it as a home base in the northeast, increasing the Southern Baptist influence in the midst of its more liberal neighbors. Northfield residents expressed concern about some of the groups that showed interest in the property. Northfield Mt. Hermon Prep. alumni objected particularly to Liberty University because of its conservative reputation.

Representatives from both GCU and NAMB say they recognize a relationship with the Northfield community as a critical part of taking over the campus. Brian Mueller, GCU's chief executive said he hopes the school's vision of providing affordable private education to low-income students would resonate locally.

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

Green told the Huffington Post that while the northeast has become very secular, area residents should reconsider America's roots and the principles D.L. Moody taught.

"If there can be a light in that area that this campus can play a part in, we would love to see that happen," Green said.

Published, June 12, 2012
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