|New campus in Ontario, California
Credit: Jim Veneman
When Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary sold its Northern California campus for $85 million, the motivation to sell wasn’t primarily financial. The school had no debt and was living within its income. Enrollment was holding steady at about 2,000 students. The decision to relocate was in response to a well-organized campaign mounted by affluent and development-averse neighbors. In the conversation below, seminary president Jeff Iorg recalls how board members, faced with the possibility of a costly legal battle, considered their options and came to a conclusion: It was time to go.
Q Golden Gate Seminary had been in Mill Valley, California, since 1959; why did the community suddenly organize a major protest against it?
A President Jeff Iorg: In 1984, the seminary and community agreed to a 25-year master development plan that left about half of our 120-acre campus as green space. That agreement expired in 2009, and we wanted to create a new plan that would allow us room to grow. But higher education wasn’t the only thing that had changed in 25 years. The community around us had evolved into one of the most exclusive in the country — a location overlooking San Francisco Bay where houses sell for $800 to $1,000 a square foot. The resistance to us making any changes to the campus was so strong that it included personal threats. Banners and signs condemned us for trying to redevelop the property. The neighborhood association retained attorneys and land development consultants to stop what we wanted to do.
Q How did the board grapple with the situation?
A Initially the board recognized we had two options: to sell or to stay. We decided to stay, and we hired outside experts to help create a proposal that we presented to the public in 2011. We expected some pushback and were willing to compromise in order to reach a plan that was acceptable to everyone. Instead, we ran into incredible opposition from the community and local politicians. We spent two years trying to find a way to go forward, but we were stopped at every turn. We finally reached a point where we realized that the “stay” option was not for us. We had to look for a Plan B. That meant looking for a buyer.
Q At what point did you advertise the campus for sale?
A We never did. We felt that would be tantamount to closing the doors. We felt it would be very difficult to enroll students or attract new employees if they knew we were planning to leave the area. Privately we began talking to persons in the real estate business. Eventually a buyer came forward and offered us $85 million in cash plus a two-year lease so we would have time to relocate.
Q Two years isn’t very long considering you had to find appropriate property and refit it as a campus. How did you begin the process?
A Actually, we had a jumpstart because back when we were deciding whether to sell or to stay, we had formulated general plans for both options. Now we revisited the “sell” option and fine-tuned it. Fortunately, we had the two years to put it into practice.
|New campus in Fremont, California
Credit: Rick Durst
Q How actively was the board involved in all the decision-making?
A All Southern Baptist seminary boards are elected at the denomination’s national convention, and the board is the final authority on every strategic decision related to the seminary. So our board was fully engaged in this process at each of their meetings starting in about 2008. We would give them briefings on everything we were working on, and then they would make the decisions. It’s also important to know that we have 39 board members, and we never turn over more than four or five a year. A person stays on the board ten years, which gives us a great deal of stability. When a new group joined the board, part of the orientation was an update on the seminary’s land issues.
Q How did the relocation plan unfold?
A We felt our primary campus should be in Southern California where we’ve long had a regional presence. A secondary campus would remain somewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area. We identified several factors — cost of housing, transportation, Baptist and evangelical populations — and we used those factors to evaluate locations. In the end, our strategic choice was to move the primary campus to Ontario, California, where we found a never-occupied, five-year-old facility that was available at a very desirable price. When we announced that Fremont, California, was our choice for the Bay Area campus, a church in that city gave us property that was valued at $2.9 million. It was just two acres but was perfect for the regional commuter campus we wanted to build. So, all these things started coming together. I would say we followed our transition plan 95 percent of the time.
Q How did you handle faculty and staff relocation and turnover?
A On the day of the announced sale — April 1, 2014 — we told our 146 employees they would have a written plan of their future by December 31 of that year and that the plan would go into effect by July 2016. That gave them about an eight-month window to make decisions, followed by an 18-month window to reorient their life going forward. Quite a few opted to come with us to Southern California. Others stayed at the Bay Area campus, some retired, and a few received generous severance packages.
Q How did you choose your new name?
A It was easy. Our magazine has always been called Gateway Magazine, so it was part of our heritage. It’s also a generic name and doesn’t attach us to any geographic location or iconic landmark like “Golden Gate” did. The board decided on the name quickly, and the vote was unanimous.
Q Now that you've settled into your new facility in Ontario, have all expectations been met?
A The changes have been significant but not negative. The facility was a blank slate when we bought it — a completely empty building, six floors, 155,000 square feet. We told the architects: “Don’t think about building a school. We’re an adult graduate-level institution, and the average age of our students is 35. We want something that looks more like a law office or a conference center.” We didn’t want to waste money on frivolous things, but color and design don’t really add much cost. As someone once told me, “An attractive building costs about the same as an ugly one.”
The facility that resulted has exceeded all expectations. We’re still working through a few bugs, but overall, people are thrilled with it.
Q Did you have trouble maintaining staff morale and unity during times of uncertainty and change?
A Looking back, I think the reason we were able to stay united was that we felt that God was intervening on our behalf at so many junctures. I remember moments when we would pause and say, “This is so much bigger than what we could have done on our own!” Who wouldn’t want to get in step with what was happening when it was so obvious that God was moving in our school?
Note: There has been an update to this story since the time of this interview. Read it here.