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Domestic News | January 7, 2013

Hobby Lobby punts free campus to foundation


Green family looks for help giving away Massachusetts school after two failed attempts

A view through a window at Kenarden Hall, part of the free campus Hobby Lobby tired to give away. (Associated Press/Photo by Elise Amendola)

After two unsuccessful attempts to give away a 217-acre campus in Massachusetts, the Green family, owners of the Hobby Lobby retail chain, has turned the property over to the National Christian Foundation (NCF) in the hope it can find a new owner.

The Atlanta-based foundation helps individuals and businesses donate property and sets up giving funds that maximize tax deductions. NCF describes itself as the largest Christian grant-making organization in the world, with $590 million in distributions in 2012.

"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, Hobby Lobby's real estate analyst. "When we were unable, we decided to enlist the help of NCF, an organization with which we have had a long, successful relationship. We are confident they will be able to find a long-term owner for this property."

The Green family estimates the rural campus, near the New Hampshire and Vermont border, is worth $20 million. It was home to a prep school founded by evangelist D.L. Moody in 1879 but has remained vacant since 2005. The Green family purchased it with the intention of giving it to a new college named for C.S. Lewis. When the school's founders failed to raise the money needed to maintain the property, the Greens started looking for a new recipient.

The nationwide search gained widespread attention from Christian colleges and ministries, who sent representatives to tour the campus early last year. But opposition from nearby residents, who said they didn't want a conservative Christian organization in their backyard, prompted several groups to back out.

In the end, the Greens had two finalists: Arizona-based Grand Canyon University and the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board (NAMB). In September, the family announced Grand Canyon as the winner after the NAMB decided it couldn't afford to accept the gift.

Although the campus is free and the Greens invested about $5 million in improvements, it still needs extensive maintenance and upgrades. Utility bills alone could cost as much as $1 million a year.

Grand Canyon announced plans to pour $150 million into the property, which it hoped eventually would serve 5,000 students. But leaders in nearby Northfield, a town of just 3,000, balked at the proposal and insisted the school make additional infrastructure improvements that added $30 million to the overall investment.

Three weeks after accepting the campus, Grand Canyon gave it back.

Northfield Town Manager Tom Hutcheson said the community wants to see the campus occupied again, but town leaders want to be a part of the process to select a new owner.

"That was one thing that we didn't have last time," Hutcheson said. "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. A dialogue would be useful."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.