A year after Hillsdale College won approval for a religious studies center in Somers following a lengthy and often bitter zoning process, which was detailed in a story in this magazine (“A House Divided,” September 2020), the facility has yet to offer a seminar or lecture. As of July, the only event at the Blake Center for Faith and Freedom — based in a full-size replica of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello built by the late Friendly’s Ice Cream co-founder — has been a May reception for donors, the school says.
“I’ve been inquiring myself as to what the plan is,” says Somers Selectman Timothy Keeney, a lawyer who represented Hillsdale in its effort to open the center before he joined the board. “The only thing I’ve heard is they want to make sure they get it right. I think they may be in the process of trying something out, maybe planning something in the fall.”
Hillsdale spokeswoman Emily Stack Davis said in a written statement that programming would begin this fall, assuming the easing of COVID restrictions, but offered no details. Davis referenced restrictions set by the zoning commission — the college is limited to 16 events a year, all of them religiously oriented — in writing that use of the facility “by necessity will be smaller in nature and relatively fewer in number.”
The small, conservative Michigan school, has taken at least one concrete step toward opening the approximately 100-acre center, an effort started in early 2019: advertising for an executive director. Davis declined to say if anyone has been hired or if the school is also seeking the full-time chaplain envisioned in its zoning application.
Friendly’s co-founder S. Prestley Blake, who died in January at 106, donated his 77-acre estate adjacent to the Monticello replica and pledged $25 million to create the center. The school initially proposed an institute to teach the Constitution, U.S. history and economics, but never submitted it after it became clear the institute did not meet zoning rules. Hillsdale returned about six months later, this time calling itself a religious institution, with a proposal for a religious education center and threatened to sue the town under a federal anti-religious discrimination law if the project wasn’t approved.
That angered some in town who accused the school, which is not affiliated with a church, of misrepresentation and bad faith, charges it strongly denied. An ensuing series of contentious public hearings left the town divided, First Selectman C.G. “Bud” Knorr said a year ago. Reached in July, Knorr says he believes much of the bitterness and rancor in town has since dissipated.
Knorr says he remains unhappy that the school has not made good on multiple promises its representatives made during the hearing process to find a way to make up for the property tax loss to the town, projected to eventually reach about $100,000 a year. As of July 1, the school’s tax exemption for most of the property took effect. Knorr says he sent the school a letter about the taxes in April, but didn’t get an answer until July, and the response contained no commitment from Hillsdale on compensation for the tax loss. “I’m old school,” Knorr says. “When I make a personal commitment to someone, I adhere to that commitment. They said they would make the town whole.”
Reached for comment, Davis says the school does not normally make up the taxes for property it buys, but was “willing to enter” into discussions on the issue. If an arrangement is reached, however, the school may deduct some of the cost of the lengthy hearing process, she says. “In the college’s opinion, the number of experts and lawyers that the town, college and donors were forced to employ in this effort, and the delay that it created, was outside the bounds of a normal zoning proceeding,” Davis wrote in an email. “That was a disappointing and unexpected response to such a magnificent gift being offered to the community.”
Hillsdale, which takes no government funding and had a nearly $750 million endowment as of last year, has many powerful and wealthy friends including U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, former Vice President Mike Pence and the families that own the Amway business empire. The center will be part of the school’s expanding effort to teach its takes on the U.S. Constitution, American history and economics.
The college received national attention in January with the release of former President Trump’s controversial 1776 Commission Report on American history. School President Larry Arnn chaired the commission. Critics savaged the report, which the Biden administration withdrew immediately upon taking office, as a whitewash of American history, while supporters called it a much-needed corrective to progressive interpretations.