BOSTON — An Arizona Christian college has backed out a deal for a free 217-acre campus in Massachusetts, citing millions of dollars in unanticipated costs that it said made an expensive project too risky.
Grand Canyon University informed the Oklahoma-based owners of the Northfield campus last week, five weeks after a ceremony in which it was named the recipient after an extensive search.
Steve Green, whose family owns the campus and the Hobby Lobby craft store chain, said they are disheartened by the decision.
"However, many groups have expressed an interest in the campus ... and we will begin a new search soon," Green said.
The classic stone and brick campus in the hills along the Connecticut River was once home to the Northfield Mount Hermon School, founded by 19th century evangelist Dwight L. Moody.
The Greens bought the property in 2009 intending to give to a new college named for author and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis. When that venture stalled in December, they offered it for free to groups committed to honoring Moody's traditional Christian teaching.
The for-profit Grand Canyon University, based in Phoenix, planned to eventually attract 5,000 students there by offering a low-cost, private Christian education. It also viewed the property as a northeastern base for its expanding online enrollment.
But even amid the optimism of the last month's announcement, Grand Canyon president Brian Mueller noted the deal wasn't quite done. The school's board sent a letter to the Greens on Thursday telling the family it was off.
Mueller said further review had uncovered about $30 million in extra costs for building updates and infrastructure upgrades, in addition to the $150 million it planned to spend, he said.
There was no chance Northfield, a town of 3,000, with an operating budget under $7 million, could do much, if anything, to lessen the costs, Mueller said. Suddenly, the campus' relatively remote location about two hours from Boston and the small, local base of possible commuter students – which make up about half the population at GCU's Phoenix campus – seemed like a bigger deal.
Mueller said the deal just didn't make financial sense.
"We didn't want to accept a free gift in a very bad location and try to fight that for the next 30 years," he said.
Some residents vigorously objected to Grand Canyon's inevitable transformation of their sleepy town, and Mueller said the opposition was "a factor, but it was not the major factor," in the decision to walk away. "Even if there was 100 percent agreement that we should be there, the money wasn't there to support it," he said.
The move caught Northfield residents off guard, including town administrator Tom Hutcheson, who said the town generally favored the plan, with people "either resigned to it, or really looking forward to it."
The university never approached the town with concerns about added costs, he said. It was never a secret, however, that the site needed expensive upgrades that the town wasn't going to be able to help pay for, Hutcheson added.
"I think if they had felt that they really wanted it, they could have made it happen," he said.
Grand Canyon was chosen among more than 100 groups that vied for the campus. Jerry Pattengale, who has handled the transaction for the Greens, said interest in the property remains high, but it will be at least a year before another recipient is chosen.
"(The Greens are) just trying to do something that's really good for a lot of people," Pattengale said. "Sometimes, doing good things takes a little more work than you thought it would."