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Our Rich History: The Thomas More Foundation established to deal with college’s extra acreage

By Tom Ward
Special to NKyTribune

Part 16 of our series: “Retrospect and Vista II: Thomas More College/University, 1971-2021”

By the end of Dr. DeGraff’s tenure as TMC President, the development of college property had gone through its initial stages, yet much still needed to be done. During the presidency of Dr. Robert Giroux, the law firm of Deters, Benzinger and LaVelle leased space for an office just off Turkeyfoot Road. During those years, the Board of Trustees consented to an option agreement with the El Grande Corporation for a ground lease on part of the TMC property and also agreed to convey to the Commonwealth and to St. Elizabeth Hospital that portion of its property needed to build the access road from Turkeyfoot to the new hospital. The Board of Trustees later recommended to the State Highway Department that the name of the new road be Thomas More Parkway (Board of Trustees meeting minutes, Sept. 9, 1982, Mar. 16, 1983, TMU Archives).

William Butler, president of Corporex. (Thomas More Archives)

Further development would come with the arrival of Dr. Giroux’s successor. When Dr. Thomas Coffey began his term as president in 1982, he decided to speed up the process of developing the remaining acreage (approximately 188 acres). It seemed like an opportune time since the new access road was nearing completion. With Dr. Coffey’s encouragement, the Board of Trustees appointed a five-member Ad Hoc Committee in 1983 “to determine the goals and objectives of the development as it relates to the college, financially and conceptually, and secondly to determine the best vehicle to accomplish this” (Board of Trustees meeting minutes, May 26, 1983, TMU Archives).

The Ad Hoc Committee was headed by William Butler of Corporex and included Mary Brown, John Cronin, George Scheper, and attorney Charles Deters. Dr. Coffey usually participated in the meetings that began on June 7 and lasted through the summer of 1983. One of its first decisions was to establish an entity separate from the college itself as the vehicle for managing development, though many questions would need to be resolved regarding the nature and makeup of this entity.

Following an intensive study, the Ad Hoc Committee wrote up a report that it presented to the Board of Trustees for its September 16, 1983 meeting. Butler offered the lead presentation with the other members adding their own comments. This document recommended the organization of a corporation, to be named the Thomas More Foundation, Inc., (TMF) as a for-profit corporation (as distinct from the non-profit status of the college itself) to develop the property as a wholly-owned subsidiary of TMC. This structure would limit the college’s liability and preserve its non-profit tax status (Section IV “Development Structure” of Ad Hoc Committee’s Final Report to TMC Board of Trustees, Sept. 16, 1983, TMU Archives).

One important aspect that would limit TMC’s liability was that the Foundation would lease the land from the college, for an initial cost of $480,000 and increasing at 4% per annum, and be responsible for business affairs. The TMF would hire a full-time General Manager to take charge of development. The Foundation would also secure a loan to improve the acreage.

Thomas More Centre Logo. (Thomas More University Archives)

The plan presented in this report differed from earlier ones. The Ad Hoc Committee had a more centralized vision of a “‘planned and protective’ research, office and business park” that would not only provide revenue for the college, but would also “provide uses, services, amenities, and cooperative educational programs for Park tenants, together with job opportunities for students, and professional opportunities for the College and faculty in cooperation with Park tenants.” The Park might even include facilities that could be used by the College, but would be cost-prohibitive to build itself, such as recreational facilities and a convention center. The college could become “a focal point of the area” and contribute to the development of the entire Northern Kentucky/Cincinnati region. As with earlier plans, though, new facilities to be built “shall not detract from the architecture and aesthetics of the existing” campus (Section II “The Concept” of Ad Hoc Committee’s Final Report to TMC Board of Trustees, Sept. 16, 1983, TMU Archives).

It was very important for the TMF to establish “protective covenants” for use of any lots to be leased within the park that would eventually be named “Thomas More Centre,” with emphasis on it as a “Corporate Campus.” Certain conditions were marked out for leasing, and purposes had to be in accord with specified terms. This would assure that the college and all other tenants would not be faced with objectionable facilities that might detract from the overall character of the park. Covenants would “insure [sic] proper development and use of the Property, to protect the owner of each parcel against improper development and use of surrounding parcels as will depreciate the value of his parcel…” TMC would not, of course, allow any facility in which objectionable medical procedures – such as abortion, euthanasia and sterilization – would be performed contrary to its moral values (Declaration of Protective Covenants Thomas More Research and Business Park, TMU Archives). Eventually, an Architectural Review Committee was created to ensure that building plans complied with the Protective Covenants.

The Board of Trustees unanimously approved the Ad Hoc Committee plan at its September 29, 1983 meeting, though the Ad Hoc Committee continued in operation for a while longer and helped to nominate the first members for the TMF Board of Directors.

Land designated for Thomas More Centre as shown in brochure. (Thomas More University Archives.)

The original intention of the Ad Hoc Committee was for the Board of Trustees of the college to elect the five directors of the new corporation (though it would be increased to seven), with one of the directors automatically to be the President of TMC. They were to “be experienced and proven individuals with expertise in fields which will contribute to the success of this project…” (Section IV “Development Structure” of Ad Hoc Committee’s Final Report to TMC Board of Trustees, Sept. 16, 1983, TMU Archives). The original members of the Board of Directors were Bruce Lunsford, R. L. Buse, Jr., John Cronin, John Dues, George Scheper, Robert Tenhover, and Dr. Coffey.

The new TMF Board of Directors met for the first time on May 8, 1984. Bruce Lunsford, attorney and accountant, accepted an appointment as president of the new foundation, and Dr. Coffey would serve as secretary. One of the new board’s first orders of business was to create the position of General Manager for development. Although concerns regarding the budget were raised, it was decided that it had to be a full-time position with an adequate salary to attract someone with knowledge of sales, marketing, business and real estate (TMF Board of Directors meeting minutes, May 8, 1984, TMU Archives). At the next meeting on July 18, the board determined that hiring a single person, rather than a management company, was the most desirable (TMF Board of Directors meeting minutes, July 18, 1984, TMU Archives). Lunsford suggested Donald Kohls. With agreement from the board, he interviewed Kohls, who accepted the position with the title of Executive Director.

The engineering firm of McGill, Smith and Punshon of Cincinnati was hired to develop the land before it would be leased to tenants, which would greatly enhance the value of the property (TMF Board of Directors meeting minutes, Jan. 24, 1985, TMU Archives). This involved preparing the basic infrastructure with roadways, sewers, electric and gas lines, etc., that would service the plots of land. The development process, though, incurred debt for the Foundation that could not be paid until income was derived from the expected leases.

Over subsequent meetings, the directors discussed various options for businesses that could be attracted to Thomas More Centre. It was thought that a hotel and convention center would draw many other businesses to the area. An advertisement of September 1984 stressed other planned amenities: restaurants, a recreational/fitness center, a daycare center, banks and medical offices and others, plus jogging and nature trails. There were even discussions regarding a possible World Trade Center.

Not all of these amenities came to be. One that did, however, had a big impact on the college and Thomas More Centre. Dr. Coffey entered into negotiations with the Northern Kentucky Racquet Club regarding leasing land adjacent to the campus for building a multi-faceted sports complex. The complex became a reality as the Four Seasons (now Five Seasons) Sports Country Club. Students, faculty, staff and alumni were allowed memberships at reduced rates for access to athletic facilities they would not otherwise have had at TMC, and there would also be employment opportunities for students. Dr. Coffey claimed that the facility would be a unique cooperative effort between a business corporation and a private independent college; he stressed that “no college or university has ever been able to offer such a full-service facility on its campus that is so elaborate, so elegant and so complete” (Press release, Feb. 22, 1985, TMU Archives). It also served as the kind of initial facility that could induce other businesses to locate in the park.

Artist’s Conception of Thomas More Centre in brochure. (Four Seasons in lower right corner). (Thomas More University Archives.) 

Two other sites were utilized in the early stages of Thomas More Centre, one a lease to the Square D corporation for a computer center and a sale to the Dow Jones Corporation on behalf of the Wall Street Journal for a publishing and distribution center. The TMF Board of Directors were hoping to attract “Fortune 500” caliber tenants, and these two nationally known companies would bring more prestige than would local companies (TMF Board of Directors meeting minutes, Oct. 22, 1985, TMU Archives).

The sale of the property to the Wall Street Journal, however, was made as an exception to the practice of leasing land that had been approved by the Board of Trustees. The issue of selling versus leasing land was discussed over several meetings of the TMF Board of Directors. The Trustees favored retaining the original agreement for leasing by which they had leased the land to the TMF at the outset. But most of the directors began to realize that outright sales were more desired by potential clients and would generate more immediate cash flow. They were concerned that leasing alone would not generate the income to pay back the loans to the banks, which they were asking to be done (TMF Board of Directors Meeting minutes, Mar. 12, 1986, TMU Archives). The Trustees were concerned that by selling land, the college would lose control of it “in perpetuity,” but the directors came to believe that insistence on leasing rather than sales was causing some potential tenants to withdraw their initial proposals; some directors even expressed the opinion that if the Foundation did not have the right to make the necessary decisions regarding sales (which had to be approved by the Trustees), there was no point in its continued existence (TMF Board of Directors meeting minutes, Sept. 17, 1986, TMU Archives).

In the fall of 1986, Dr. Charles Bensman began his term as TMC President. The Trustees were still not ready to accept selling rather than leasing, though they would consider and approve sales on a case-by-case basis. The TMF made a strong argument that sales were necessary to pay down the debt (TMF Board of Directors meeting minutes, Sept. 17, 1986, TMU Archives).

In February 1987, Kohls resigned as Executive Director, though he would stay on as a consultant, and was replaced by David Wahls. The TMF agreed to sell several small parcels to local firms, including Corporex Properties, Inc. and the Paul Hemmer Construction Company in 1987 (TMF Board of Directors conference call, June 4, 1987, TMU Archives). The Board of Trustees eventually came to accept the idea that it might be necessary to consider a “bulk” sale of the remaining property (Kohls letter to TMF Board of Directors, June 22, 1987, TMU Archives).

According to a document, “Thomas More Foundation Overview and Analysis,” written by Michael Bromberg, Vice President for Administration and Finance (who had also served as acting president prior to Dr. Bensman’s taking office and had participated in TMF Board meetings), the Trustees concluded that a sale was needed because “the market for leased land had been overestimated” in earlier projections, and even “revised lease projections failed to materialize” (TMF Overview and Analysis, p. 3, Feb. 8, 1988, TMU Archives).

The concept of a bulk sale was approved by the Board of Trustees at their September 3, 1987 meeting. Earlier, the Trustees’ Executive Committee had recommended, with Bishop Hughes’ approval, that, although it was desirable to retain ownership of the land with the hope that leasing would support the college’s endowment over the long run, it was not practical because “it will be 4-5 years at our present rate before we see any ‘fruits’ from the Foundation” (Board of Trustees’ Executive Committee meeting minutes, Aug. 17, 1987, TMU Archives).

Accordingly, ten “Request for Proposals” were sent out to potential developers in November 1987. In the end, a proposal submitted by the Paul Hemmer Construction Company of Fort Mitchell to purchase approximately 155 acres was accepted during a conference call by members of the TMF Board of Directors (Dr. Bensman memo to Pat Buse, board member, Jan. 26, 1988, TMU Archives). The Board of Trustees resolved to approve the sale at its meeting the following day (Board of Trustees special meeting minutes, Jan. 27, 1988, TMU Archives). The formal purchase agreement was signed on February 19, 1988, with the transfer of title to take place on May 31. In June, the purchase was assigned to the newly formed Thomas More Centre/Hemmer, a Kentucky General Partnership (Assignment of Agreement to Purchase, dated June 21, 1988, TMU Archives).

As this transaction was described in a March 3, 1988, TMC press release, the Hemmer Company would pay $6.5 million for the remaining acres of Thomas More Centre. Dr. Bensman stressed that the “relationship between the College and Thomas More Centre will remain as originally planned…” and the Hemmer Company intended to develop the area with the same “mixture of professional, research and medical buildings” (TMC press release, March 3, 1988, TMU Archives). Hemmer would also “assume responsibility for marketing” Thomas More Centre (The Kentucky Post, March 4, 1988).

With the completion of the sale, the Thomas More Foundation had fulfilled its purpose and its lease agreement with TMC was terminated. The Foundation itself officially closed its office on January 15, 1988 (Bromberg memo to Bensman, Feb. 8, 1988, TMU Archives). The final deal differed considerably from the original proposal of the TMF, though for reasons that had not been foreseen at the time of its conception. Under the circumstances that developed, the TMF, in conjunction with the Board of Trustees, secured a sound and lucrative conclusion to the long-standing question regarding the disposition of the college’s extra acreage.

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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