Historic and proud Morris Brown College has been plagued with the fallout of financial mismanagement and crumbling architecture for years, but a recent deal that would make it the country's only Historically Black College and University with an on-campus flagged hotel and hospitality management training program could help turn those tides.
CGI Merchant Group has announced a $30-million investment that would convert existing Morris Brown facilities into a 150-key, upscale hotel and training complex for people seeking careers in hospitality management.
The Tapestry Collection by Hilton hotel will feature two eateries, an outdoor terrace, and instructional space for Morris Brown hospitality students, according to officials with CGI Merchant Group, described as a “minority-owned global investment management firm with a focus in real estate and private equity.”
Construction of the 90,000-square-foot facility, located just west of Mercedes-Benz Stadium downtown, is expected to begin later this year, per CGI.
Project leaders cited Atlanta’s sports stadiums, nearby HBCUs such as Morehouse College, Clark Atlanta University, and Spellman College, and Microsoft’s recent investments in the Westside as reasons why the location is strategic.
CGI Founder and CEO Raoul Thomas said the company hopes the hotel partnership “serves as a catalyst for continued change, as more and more organizations and individuals are turning their attention to these important historic institutions which have been overlooked for far too long," according to a press release earlier this month.
Hilton plans to serve in an advisory capacity for Morris Brown’s hospitality management program, providing guidance on how the curriculum can best prepare students for hotel careers. The project development team includes Atlanta-based Chasm Architecture and Georgia’s Black-owned C.D. Moody Construction, officials said.
Morris Brown president Dr. Kevin James noted that the university has "served as a beacon of opportunity for Black and minority students for many decades" and that he hopes the CGI deal will "carry that legacy and create the next generation of minority hospitality leaders."
Requests this month for renderings or other imagery related to CGI’s Morris Brown plans were not returned. Exactly which facilities will be renovated for hotel uses wasn’t specified.
Morris Brown, founded in 1881 by formerly enslaved leaders of Big Bethel AME Church, was Georgia’s first college to be owned and led by African-Americans. Notable alumni include Martin Luther King, Jr.’s mother, Alberta Williams King, and the first Black writer to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, James Alan McPherson. Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois penned The Souls of Black Folk in 1903 at Fountain Hall and elsewhere on campus.
But the college’s more recent decades have been less esteemed.
Due to unpaid debts and other financial missteps, Morris Brown lost its accreditation in 2002. Fire ravaged iconic Gaines Hall a few years later, as Fountain Hall across the street has continued to crumble. The Atlanta Preservation Center, like other historic preservationist groups, has consider much of the campus endangered for nearly 15 years.
A ray of light came in 2019, when The Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation shortlisted Fountain Hall as one of the state’s “Top 10 Places in Peril.” In November that year, the National Park Service awarded Morris Brown a $500,000 grant to help renovate the failing structure—one of Atlanta's most recognizable landmarks west of downtown.
In another positive sign, the Morris Brown College National Alumni Association reported in November that more than $550,000 was raised from alumni and other supporters via virtual homecomings in 2020. And according to James, the college’s accreditation application with the Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools has been green-lighted—a major step toward Morris Brown receiving full accreditation again.
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