Ambassador's sale to Catholic school falls through

By Mac Overton

BIG SANDY, Texas--The purchase of Ambassador University's property at Big Sandy by LaRoche College of Pittsburgh, Pa., has fallen through.

Bernie Schnippert, treasurer of the Pasadena, Calif.-based Worldwide Church of God, which owns the property, said Aug. 17 the WCG had been notified by attorneys for LaRoche that LaRoche had been unsuccessful in securing the necessary financing and doubted that it would be able to do so in the future.

The notification came only a week before the sale was set to close on Aug. 23, a source close to Ambassador said.

According to LaRoche president William Kerr, U.S. government regulations figured in the failure of the sale.

He reportedly told The Longview (Texas) News Journal that, because LaRoche wanted primarily to educate foreign students at the site, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services would have required the university to go through a waiting period of up to four years before it could formally accept students or be declared an institution.

Dr. Kerr said that, since LaRoche couldn't remain open without students, it would instead add to its 100-foreign-student population at its campus in Pennsylvania.

Elusive financing

LaRoche is a private liberals-arts college affiliated with a Roman Catholic order, the Sisters of Divine Providence. It had placed the property under contingency contract early last year and had been attempting to secure financing since then.

LaRoche wanted to use the Big Sandy facility to educate foreign students, especially those from war-torn and poor countries, LaRoche officials had said.

The Worldwide Church of God closed Ambassador in August 1997 after declining enrollment and a shrinking financial subsidy from the church put the university in a financial bind. Ambassador conducted its last graduation ceremony in May 1997.

The Catholic Diocese of Tyler had helped LaRoche contact the WCG and had encouraged the purchase.

LaRoche president William Kerr told The Gilmer Mirror, a county-seat newspaper serving Big Sandy, only a few weeks ago that LaRoche hoped to open this fall with a few students and a "skeleton" program.

Dr. Schnippert said he could not comment on whether LaRoche forfeited earnest money because that would violate financial nondisclosure agreements. He said he also could not comment about whether LaRoche was paying a share of the upkeep of the campus while the sale was pending.

LaRoche entered into a purchase-and-sale agreement with the WCG for the Big Sandy property last August.

Sources close to the university said that, when LaRoche officials began seeking extensions on closing the deal back in the winter, the WCG had asked them to begin bearing part of the cost of upkeep.

Great disappointment

Catholic East Texas, a newspaper serving the Diocese of Tyler, reported in its Aug. 20 edition that "just over a year after the initial rumors of a new Catholic college within the Tyler Diocese, the president of LaRoche College said the dream will not become reality."

"We ran into several problems, particularly with accrediting agencies," the paper quoted Dr. Kerr as stating. "It's just not going to be. It would have been a wonderful work for the Lord. It is a very great disappointment to us all."

Dr. Kerr, who was to serve as president of the new, stand-alone institution--which was to be called Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) University--while remaining president of LaRoche, was apparently confident that the sale would go through. He recently had four horses he owns moved to stables on the university grounds.

Some former Ambassador faculty members had postponed signing contracts with other institutions in hopes of being on the faculty of the new college at Big Sandy.

One man, who had an opportunity to teach at Texas A&M University at Commerce, said he did not sign a contract there because he had been told by Dr. Kerr only a few weeks ago he would have a job on the faculty of the new school.

Dr. Schnippert said several other serious potential buyers for the Ambassador property are waiting in the wings, and he expects it to sell soon.

He does not anticipate that the local WCG congregation, which moved off campus last winter as the sale was pending, will move back onto campus.

"I understand they are very happy with the facilities" at Abundant Life Temple in nearby Gladewater, he said.

The sale price of Ambassador has not been disclosed. Replacement cost of the approximately 230-acre core campus and about 2,000 adjacent acres has been estimated at $65 million. Unsubstantiated reports set the purchase price at about $35 million.

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