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Bible College Says, 'Let There Be Growth' : San Dimas: A plan to replace all buildings on campus--and a 114-house development that will finance the construction--has torn the shroud of secrecy from a small Baptist school.

October 14, 1990|JAMES RAINEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIMAS — High on a mesa in the hills, shielded from the world by a deep canyon of old oak trees, sits the campus of Pacific Coast Baptist Bible College.

So secluded is this training ground for ministers and church workers that neighbors who happen upon the campus often remark: "I had no idea you were here."

Now they know.

That's because the Christian fundamentalists who operate the college are seeking approval for a plan to remake their verdant hillside west of the Foothill Freeway--demolishing the existing campus in favor of a newer model and financing the development with the construction of an adjoining tract of 114 new homes.

The Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission will consider the proposal Wednesday. It is reviewing the development because the property is in unincorporated territory, although it is surrounded by the city of San Dimas.

The commission's recommendation to the Board of Supervisors will hinge on the wishes of the Bible college--wanting a new campus to shore up declining enrollment--and the desires of the surrounding bedroom communities--hoping to prevent changes at one of the San Gabriel Valley's most rugged nature preserves.

At a hearing on the proposal last month, a college official talked about the importance of training ministers of God. Residents talked about saving historic oaks and the habitats of coyotes, opossums, owls and mountain lions.

Both sides say they hope those goals can coexist peacefully, as the manicured campus property and untamed Walnut Creek canyon have for most of this century.

The campus was built in 1928 as a home for underprivileged boys. A decade later, the home closed and 150 acres and more than a dozen Spanish-style buildings were donated to the state for the operation of a Cal Poly campus. When Cal Poly completed its move to Pomona in 1972, the Baptist Bible Fellowship made the San Dimas property the permanent home of the Bible college.

By the late 1970s, Pacific Coast Baptist Bible College was flourishing, with an enrollment of 500 students. Most of the students, then and now, come from the 300 churches in the western United States that also donate half of the college's operating budget.

But enrollment has gradually declined over the last decade to its current low of 170 students. Sixty-seven of those come from California and the rest from out of state or overseas.

Larry Stonebraker, a preacher from Kansas who is the college's administrator, cites several causes for the declining enrollment.

As the population of teen-agers has been shrinking, so has the supply of students for colleges and universities all over the country. The number of high school graduates will drop 11.8% from 1988 to 1994, according to the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. And 672 colleges and universities reported openings in their freshman classes this summer, 27% more than just two years ago, according to the National Assn. of College Admissions Counselors.

The American Assn. of Bible Colleges has reported that attendance dropped 14.5% during the 1980s at 65 colleges the association accredits.

Undergraduate Bible colleges, which mix liberal arts and religious studies, have also been hurt by the shrinking number of full-time church jobs available to graduates and the desire of many churches to hire pastors with graduate degrees from seminaries, said Bill Wilson, assistant director of the Bible college association.

Men leaving the San Dimas school once could move right into full-time ministerial positions, but now many must bide their time with part-time assignments or as counselors or teachers, Stonebraker said. The church allows only men to enter its ministry.

Baptist Bible College also may have been hurt by its lack of accreditation. Although the college is approved by the state to issue bachelor's degrees, it has not been fully accredited because most of its teachers are ministers from the community who do not hold graduate degrees that college rating organizations require.

And Stonebraker sees a more pervasive reason for the two-thirds drop in his school's enrollment.

"Society is so achievement and materially oriented," he said. "The young people want to make it big, make a lot of money and make it in the world."

The Baptist ministers who make up the college's board of directors said many of those problems are beyond their control.

What they can improve, they say, is the condition of the college itself.

The 60-year-old campus buildings, with their red tile roofs, may hold some charm, but that wears thin when the roofs leak in winter, said the Rev. Frank Johnson, college president and a minister in Midland, Tex. Foundations are cracked, wiring is faulty and plumbing drips.

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