BOSTON — The owners of an historic campus in the hills of western Massachusetts announced Friday that they'll give it away to a Christian college from Arizona that plans to eventually host 5,000 students there.
The Northfield campus will be a new home for Grand Canyon University, the first for-profit Christian school in the country.
Grand Canyon was the choice after the other finalist, the North American Missions Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, backed out of the running.
The two were the last standing after more than 100 organizations, from culinary schools to TV ministries, expressed interest in the free 217-acre property along the Connecticut River, which its owners value at about $20 million.
In the end, Grand Canyon's financial strength, growth and vibrant Christian life made it a great choice, said Steve Green, president of the Oklahoma City-based Hobby Lobby craft store chain, whose family owns the campus.
"We are excited about the opportunity to see Grand Canyon bring it to life," Green said.
The family hopes to close the deal by year's end, he said.
The campus once housed the Northfield Mount Herman prep school, founded by 19th century evangelist D.L. Moody. The Greens bought it in 2009 and later offered to give it away to group that would honor Moody's commitment to traditional Christian teachings.
Grand Canyon University, based in Phoenix, has about 7,000 traditional students and 40,000 online students. With a base in the Northeast, Grand Canyon chief executive Brian Mueller thinks the online number can grow by 8 percent annually.
The school expects to spend $100 million to $150 million on infrastructure and other improvements in Northfield, with students arriving starting in 2014. The build-up to 5,000 students and full academic, athletic and arts programs will take place over several years, and with full consultation with the community, he said.
"We want to build on what's there," Mueller said. "It's historic. It's beautiful."
The plan promises economic development, but there's uncertainty about the impact in Northfield, with a population just under 1,100. Residents have expressed concerns about the potentially restrictive beliefs of the new institution, the effects on their school system and even the town's survival.
Corine Allen, owner of Rooster's Bistro on Main Street, said some will undoubtedly be disappointed to lose "the Norman Rockwell-y feel of our small country town." But she said she was elated by Grand Canyon's pending arrival, citing benefits such as increased property values, more visitors and more business.
"I feel as though the town is sinking. This is going to save us," she said. "There's far more advantages than disadvantages."
The campus was built in 1879 and abandoned by the prep school in 2005, which consolidated at another nearby campus. It left behind a collection of dignified but deteriorating buildings and $1 million in annual utility costs.
The Greens spent $5 million on upgrades and repairs, intending to give it to a new college named for Christian scholar C.S. Lewis. But that project ran into financing problems in December, and the Greens made their unique offer.
Despite the broad interest, the number of organizations capable and willing to assume the steep costs of running the entire campus was relatively small. The Southern Baptist mission board, which proposed running the campus as a missionary training and pastoral retreat center, said Friday it decided it wasn't for them "after closely evaluating the potential uses, logistics, and operating expenses."
Phoenix-based Grand Canyon University was founded in 1949 as a private Christian university and was saved from bankruptcy in 2005 by a group of Christian investors.
Mueller said the school aims to provide a private Christian college education at an affordable cost, which is kept low in part by funds from its large online enrollment and investment in the publicly-traded company. Tuition is $16,500, roughly half the average $32,617 tuition at a private, four-year college, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.
The business model has worked, as growth in its traditional and online student body has been exponential. But Green said it's important that, before the deal closes, the school shows how it intended to keep its Christian heritage central to its mission.
Mueller said the school's approach is to make its Christian identity a main, but voluntary, part of campus life, in the hope people are attracted to what they see. It has worked to build a strong Christian community in Phoenix, and he believes it will work in Northfield.
"We are anxious for the opportunity," he said. "We are anxious to take it on."