What's ahead for the former Finlandia campus?

Even though Finlandia University in Hancock has closed as a higher education institution, its buildings and properties are evolving into other uses.
When Finlandia shut its doors last spring, 27 buildings and other properties went into state receivership. For months, the properties were in limbo. Buyers were hard to find, and vacant buildings were deteriorating. 

Now, only two properties remain up for sale and two are slated to be left abandoned, according to receiver Patrick O’Keefe. The properties sold include two landmark buildings that the community feared were doomed.

O’Keefe says he expects to have the final four properties sold or abandoned by early January. 

A private investor has purchased some of the historic buildings with plans for extensive renovations. Some properties have been purchased by the city of Hancock to remain as open space for the public. The culturally important Finnish American Heritage Center has been purchased by a national philanthropic organization.

Founded in 1896, Finlandia was a small private Lutheran university, the only private university in the Upper Peninsula. The university’s board voted unanimously to dissolve the institution in March, citing demographic changes, a dwindling endowment and an “unbearable debt load.”

Among the new building owners is Jonathon Nagel, a real estate investor in Houghton, who has purchased the historic Hoover Center. The turreted, three-story house, a landmark in Hancock, faces Quincy Street, the main street through downtown.  

The Finnish American Heritage Center, a focal point of the heavily Finnish community, recently was acquired by the Finlandia Foundation National (FFN), a philanthropic organization headquartered in Pasadena, California. 

David Maki, director of the Finnish American Heritage Center, says the FNN stepped in to preserve the Heritage Center and the North Winds Book Store, so that operations could continue without interruption. 

“When (the foundation) heard the news of the university’s closure, they recognized right away that they needed to do what they could to make sure we stayed operational,” Maki says. “They discovered that we’re a perfect match, so now we’re a part of their organization.” 

Nagel, a Hancock resident and real estate investor who focuses on historic preservation, often admired the Hoover Center on his bike rides through Hancock.

“When I first learned of the University’s closure, I was immediately concerned for the future of this building,” he says. He feared that potential buyers would cut the house into apartments or tear it down to develop the lot.

“Purchasing the Hoover Center was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me to protect a local landmark and tackle an incredible restoration challenge,” he goes on to say. “It was certainly an unplanned purchase for me, but it was something that I just felt I had to do. “Not only because it’s an architectural masterpiece, but because it’s also been a part of this community for so long.”
Restoration will be a long and expensive process, but Nagel intends to do a majority of the labor himself to cut down the cost. 

“I will start by addressing immediate exterior concerns and will tackle the interior room by room as I go,” he says. 

The exterior is in really rough shape,” he points out. “The roof is losing shingles, leaking and suffering from years of ice damage. The paint has been redone several times, but never to the extent necessary for it to last, and the woodwork has suffered severely from water damage.

Thankfully, the original windows have for the most part been left intact, but they need to be fully rebuilt to their original beauty and functionality. The few modern windows will be removed and replaced with replicas of the original ones.”

The interior also needs a staggering amount of work. “Interior plumbing and electrical updates are needed,” Nagel says. “Then there are all the traditional restoration projects: plaster stabilization and repair, re-grouting tile work, painting, refinishing hardwood floors, and removing modern fixtures and finishes.” 

Nagel says he anticipates the restoration taking four to five years. He plans to live in the building while he does the work. 

What about everything else?

What is happening with the rest of the Finlandia properties? 
The city of Hancock is purchasing five parcels, to preserve them for use by city residents. One is Quincy Green, a green space in front of the former Hancock High School, in the middle of downtown, facing the main street of Hancock. It is the summer site of a weekly Tori — the Finnish name for a farmers’ market — and home to live music, outdoor movies on the green and other special events. In winter, it turns into a popular family sledding hill. 

The city paid $140,000 for Quincy Green and plans to continue to use it as a public gathering space.

Hancock has also purchased the Ryan Street Community Garden just off downtown for $27,000. The property provides free gardening plots to residents of the city and educational opportunities. A community gathering space, it also is a means to feed more than 50 families. Supporters call it “a jewel in our community.” The city’s purchase will enable the Ryan Street Garden to continue to operate as a free gardening spot for the community. 

Hancock is also purchasing three properties on Franklin Street that the receiver had originally filed a motion to abandon: Mannerheim, Nikander, and Wargelin halls. The city council approved a purchase agreement for those three properties in October for a total of $30,000, according to City Manager Mary Babcock.  Hancock is working on plans for use of the properties.

University property in receivership

Finlandia’s board voted last March to seek state court receivership. The board had three choices: state receivership, federal receivership or bankruptcy.

Receivership put all the university’s real estate and personal property up for sale. During receivership, a receiver — a licensed trustee appointed by a court to “receive” and liquidate a debtor's assets — steps in to manage the university’s property, making all financial and operating decisions. 

According to the Practical Guidance Journal on the LexisNexis website, receivership allows the court to preserve and/or maintain the value of assets, protecting the university from bankruptcy, its creditors from long waits to receive payments due and lienholders from foreclosure. Lexis-Nexis is a firm that provides verified legal information to lawyers, corporations and academics worldwide.

The university’s receiver is O’Keefe & Associates Consulting LLC, appointed by the Ingham County Circuit Court on the recommendation of the Finlandia board.  The firm has offices in Grand Rapids and Detroit. The receivership went through the Ingham County Court because the Michigan Attorney General appoints receivers, and the attorney general’s office is in Ingham County.

Upon closing, Finlandia University finalized eight Teach-Out Agreements with Adrian College, Bay College and Michigan Technological University, Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, Northern Michigan University, University of Dubuque, Waldorf University, and Wartburg College. Several non-partnering institutions have also made commitments to supporting FinnU students.

Jennifer Donovan is a reporter with more than 40 years of experience on daily newspapers, magazines and university writing and editing. She is retired as director of news and media relations at Michigan Technological University and lives in Houghton.
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