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Our Rich History: Land development at Thomas More College helped a small college survive and thrive

By Tom Ward
Thomas More University

Part 15 of our series: “Retrospect and Vista II: Thomas More College/University, 1971-2021”

In the past half-century, many small colleges and schools nationwide have succumbed to financial problems. Fortunately, Thomas More escaped that grim scenario. Blessed by a central location near the crossroads of I-75/71 and I-275—and in the heart of a vibrant metropolitan area—Thomas More’s success during the last 50 years has largely depended upon the development of its surrounding land. Happily, the college and its supporters made crucial and timely decisions, without which the school likely could not have survived.

Ernest Hillenmeyer (Courtesy of Thomas More Unversity Archives)

For in the early 1970’s, TMC faced significant financial problems. Necessary revenue could not reasonably be expected to accrue by raising tuition, especially with the arrival of Northern Kentucky University on the scene. Further, the college was still young and had little in the way of an endowment. One thing it had, though, was land. The acres that had been added over the years since Bishop Mulloy’s original purchase in 1954 were far more than needed for the college facilities themselves. Much of the land, though, was mortgaged to banks rather than owned outright by TMC. President Richard DeGraff realized this and decided it was time to do something with those acres.

Although Dr. DeGraff left no specific details, he reported that “the idea to commercially develop our acreage came to mind over a Saturday morning cup of coffee” in the fall of 1972 (DeGraff memo to Board of Trustees, July 18, 1977, TMU Archives). Dr. DeGraff broached the topic with the TMC faculty and staff in a memo dated April 18, 1973. He told them that it was essential to use the land to see the college through its financial woes. He seemed to anticipate that there would be disagreements with any foreseeable land-use policies when he stated, “We can no longer afford the luxury of vacant land.”

It was fortunate that both the Board of Trustees and the Board of Overseers had “a wealth of talent” with individuals who represented “the entire spectrum of land development.” He had already met with groups of them when he laid out in his memo three options available to the college: one would be for TMC to seek to develop the land itself, which would provide a permanent endowment; another option would be to lease the land to a developer (some had already expressed interest); the third option would be to sell the land. The second option seemed the most viable (DeGraff memo to faculty and staff, April 18, 1973, TMU Archives).

Reis LeBar (Courtesy of Thomas More University Archives)

The matter was taken up by the Board of Trustees at its May 21, 1973 meeting. The Board appointed a committee of three (Mr. Ernest Hillenmeyer, Mr. Ries LaBar and attorney Charles Deters) to evaluate proposals submitted by land development firms. Letters were sent out on May 24, under Dr. DeGraff’s name, to various companies. The letter requested that the recipients give thought to developing the land “in terms of the annual leasing income estimate, and the amount of time needed to reach this dollar level, the number of years involved in the leasing agreement, and the role of the leasing company. . . ”

The response showed that there was great interest among developers. Through the summer and fall of 1973, approximately ten firms responded, and all agreed that the land surrounding TMC had great potential. Many preliminary proposals were submitted, some even with site maps indicating possible locations of facilities that could include multi-family apartments and condominiums, as well as professional office and commercial space. Considerations were made for the locations of needed roadways, sewer lines, utilities, etc.; plans would be contingent on securing appropriate zoning from the City of Crestview Hills. Most proposals also included estimates of the rental income TMC could expect by implementing these plans.

By January 1974, the Land Development Committee narrowed down the firms to six. In a memo dated January 16, Dr. DeGraff listed two priorities: he liked the idea of a “total concept,” by which he seemed to mean an all-inclusive master plan that would keep in mind the academic purpose of the college and fit architecturally with the campus; he also wanted to “keep the campus isolated” to maintain its unique presence on the landscape.

The idea of a joint project between TMC and St. Elizabeth Hospital was also discussed. St. Elizabeth was planning construction of a new unit on land it owned adjacent to the TMC property. Some people thought that joint planning for development should be discussed between the two institutions. St. Elizabeth had hired the consulting firm of RTKL in Baltimore, which proposed locating a site for a new “circulation” road that would run between the two properties, beginning at Turkeyfoot Road and eventually linking to Dudley Road. The TMC Board of Trustees approved the road plan at its February 4, 1974 meeting – when completed with assistance of the Kentucky Highway Department, this would be the Thomas More Parkway. But the college went its own way for development of its property and hired the consulting firm of Vogt, Sage and Pflum (VSP) of Cincinnati for Phase One of development (Board of Trustees minutes, Nov. 18, 1974, TMU Archives).

Charles Deters (Courtesy of Thomas More University Archives)

A plan was developed that divided, into three unequal sections, the approximately 123 acres not planned for academic purposes. These were labeled as Areas A, B and C. This division was concretely delineated in the 1975 “Invitation for Proposals” issued to developers as part of the Thomas More College Development Program; this was a call for proposals to be made for the actual construction of the buildings.

This “Invitation” openly acknowledged the financial difficulties faced by the college and tied its survival to its ability “to develop a long term and continuing source of income that will allow the College to provide high-quality liberal arts education …” and “to achieve this objective, Thomas More College has announced its intention to make a portion of its campus available for development.” TMC also hoped to develop new academic programs that “could be offered to complement and support potential new development in the area,” which could include erecting new research facilities. To ensure that development would be architecturally compatible with existing campus structures, the college would retain control over “design criteria” (Invitation for Proposals).

The first phase of development was for a 12.7-acre parcel of land fronting Turkeyfoot Road and on the opposite side of the planned circulation road from the campus, the one designated as Area A, which TMC initially planned to sell outright to a “bona fide developer.” Sale of the land would alleviate immediate cash flow needs. Beyond this, on the same side of the yet-to-be-built road, was Area B, intended to be leased for commercial and residential use. The side of the road on which the TMC campus already stood, as well as where the planned hospital would be built, was Area C. Because Area C was occupied by the college campus, TMC would retain ownership and would lease lots under long-term leases. Three “phases” of proposed development were to correspond respectively to the three Areas designated as A, B and C.

Planning proceeded for construction of the circulation road, 30% of the cost of which TMC agreed to pay (Board of Trustees minutes, Aug. 18, 1975). The planned position of the road depended on TMC obtaining commercial zoning for Area A for the purposes of the investors who wanted to purchase land there; the anticipated location of the road was also essential for finalizing deals with potential buyers. VSP worked with TMC to win commercial zoning approval from Crestview Hills and the Northern Kentucky Area Planning Commission, but there was some public opposition voiced against it, largely on the basis that it would be hazardously close to the not-yet-completed I-275 interchange (Board of Trustees minutes, Feb. 9, 1976). Public hearings were held in March 1976. TMC stressed that the zoning would be for “professional office buildings,” rather than fast food outlets or service stations. (undated TMC memo “Facts about Thomas More College’s Request for Rezoning”).

Developers had many ideas for businesses on lots in Area A, some of which did not meet the criteria–service stations, restaurants, motels, etc. The Board of Trustees finally moved to proceed with plans for People’s Liberty Bank to acquire a lot for a branch office in Area A, not far from the little Monte Casino Chapel, and another nearby lot was made available for a medical building, even though appropriate zoning was not yet assured (Board of Trustees Minutes, Mar. 29, 1976).

With plans moving forward for Phase 1, steps were also being taken for Phase 2, or Area B. Much of this land on the north side of the planned roadway was designated for office and residential construction. Part of the master plan of VSP recommended that TMC accept a Commonwealth of Kentucky offer for the college to purchase over 90 acres contiguous to its property. The purchase of this land could be financed with the sale of the Area A acres. It was hoped that when leased and developed, an annual income of over $400,000 would be secured for TMC (Board of Trustees Minutes, Mar. 29, 1976). These additional acres were intended to form a large portion of the planned residential development. The college acquired 91.72 acres on March 1, 1977 (unattributed Real Estate History, ca. 1988).

Figure 3 showing Areas A, B and C in ‘TMC Invitation for Proposals,’ 1975 (Courtesy of Thomas More Univerity Archives)

Questions regarding zoning of the TMC property in Area A dragged on through 1976 and into 1977. As long as the matter was still under discussion, building plans for the area were delayed, and TMC could not commit to its portion of the cost of building the road. The delay prevented the college from obtaining funds it needed for making mortgage payments and costs for developing the land (Board of Trustees minutes, Aug. 16, 1976).

The first building project was almost ready to begin in the fall of 1976. The City of Crestview Hills would grant a building permit for the planned medical facility if the road became a “dedicated street,” or public thoroughfare all the way past the St. Elizabeth property to Dudley Road (Board of Trustees minutes, Nov. 8, 1976). This would, of course, increase the cost of the road.

In the end, TMC decided to lease the property in Area A rather than sell it, an arrangement that “had been planned essentially on a tax situation.” The City of Crestview Hills approved the road and the site to be leased to the People’s Liberty Bank (Board of Trustees minutes, Feb. 14, 1977). The bank would be given a right of first refusal if the college later decided to sell the land. Once the bank obtained a building permit, TMC could begin drawing rent (Board of Trustees minutes, Aug. 22, 1977). An access road from Turkeyfoot Road to the bank’s property also had to be built (Matth. Toebben to DeGraff, Nov. 15, 1977.) The lease was finalized on April 21, 1978 (Ground Lease between TMC and People’s Liberty Bank, April 21, 1978). Rent became effective on November 1, 1978 (Board of Trustees minutes, Nov. 20, 1978).

Around the same time, the college agreed to share the costs of the road three ways, with the Commonwealth paying 40%, and with TMC and St. Elizabeth splitting the remaining 60%. This was a reasonable division because the road would be primarily for the benefit of the two institutions and their land development. It was possible, though, that Kentucky might pay more if St. Elizabeth would commit property for a vocational school off the main road (Board of Trustees minutes, Nov. 21, 1977).

Although development of the college’s extra acres was taking longer than most had anticipated, by the end of Dr. DeGraff’s tenure as president following the spring 1978 semester, considerable progress had been made. Though indebtedness remained a problem, income was being derived from various sources, and TMC was moving toward a sounder financial basis.

Tom Ward is the Archivist of Thomas More University. He holds an MA in History from Xavier University, Cincinnati. He can be contacted at wardt@thomasmore.edu .

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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