When Holiday Inns founder Kemmons Wilson announced over a year ago that he was giving the University of Memphis a $15 million hotel school, it looked like the start of a beautiful relationship.
The university is trying to raise its profile and supplement its budget-cramped state appropriations with private gifts. The irrepressibly upbeat Wilson, 88, is a local and international business legend. A hotel and resort management school would be a nice fit with the Fogelman College of Business and Economics and executive conference center. It would be the only hotel school in the Mid-South and serve, among others, Memphis and the booming casino industry in Mississippi.
That was the plan, at least. Sixteen months after the gift was announced, the project finally got under way in August with the removal of several large trees on the site at Central and Deloach and approval by the Memphis and Shelby County Office of Planning and Development.
Executing the plan, it turns out, has been anything but simple. Complications include everything from the resignation of University of Memphis President Lane Rawlins to possible association with the gambling industry, impact on surrounding neighborhoods and Poplar Avenue, and the university's -- and Wilson's -- reputation for architecture known more for efficiency and functionality than aesthetic merits.
Construction of the four-story, 82-room, all-suites hotel and 1,000-seat ballroom is supposed to be finished in August 2001. Questions remain, however, about operating funds and staffing for the hotel school and the next move by neighborhood opponents, who are wealthy, battle-tested, and influential.
Meanwhile, Wilson is not getting any younger.
"I've never seen so much red tape," Wilson says. "It's hard to give money away, it looks like. I guarantee I could have built it in that length of time. I think they've done all the nitpicking they can do at this point."
Wilson, who did not finish high school much less college, says he has a soft spot for the University of Memphis as his adopted alma mater. For 55 years, he has lived a few blocks away on the edge of Galloway Golf Course. He says he got the idea for a hotel school from the Conrad N. Hilton College at the University of Houston. That college, started in 1969, has an 86-room hotel, conference center, and 21 full-time faculty and is considered one of the top programs in the country along with Cornell, Purdue, and Michigan State.
The Kemmons Wilson School of Hospitality and Resort Management will award a bachelor's degree in business administration with a major in hospitality and resort management, says John Pepin, dean of the Fogelman College.
"It will be a working school," says Pepin. "We feel it could be a terrific benefit to Memphis. We are going to train managers of hotels and restaurants; we are not going to train chefs."
Nor will it train casino workers on the gambling side of operations. There are no alliances at this time with any of the Tunica casinos with their 6,000 hotel rooms 20 miles south of Memphis. But Pepin says, "I could see where we could work with them on the hotel-restaurant side."
Rawlins, a Mormon, was opposed to gambling.
"I believe the position is changing" regarding possible relationships with casinos, Pepin says.
The university and board of regents took some pains to insure that the hotel school will not resemble a Wilson World or Wilson Inn, known for their pink stucco-like exteriors. The building will be covered with brick, which Wilson and university officials both approved.
"This will be much more expensive," Wilson says.
The $15 million, Wilson's estimate of the cost, includes everything from sheets on the beds to flatware on the dinner tables, says U of M spokesman Curt Guenther. The school will look for professionals to run the hotel and possibly operate it under a licensing agreement. The academic staff will be university professors, although at this point they haven't been hired, and the $15 million gift does not include funding for instructors.
That's one of several concerns of the neighbors, who include several prominent bankers, developers, and lawyers such as Charles Newman, who helped stop Interstate 40 through Overton Park, and Jim McGehee, former head of the Memphis Shelby County Airport Authority.
Neighborhood leaders see the university getting a hotel first and worrying about a school later while they dramatically change the neighborhood and one of the last residential stretches of Poplar Avenue. As precedent, they point to the destruction of homes on Conlee and Deloach (small streets that run between Poplar and Central), the low-cost married students housing on the south side of Poplar, and a general lack of adherence to long-term planning on the university's part.
"I think they're going to destroy Poplar Avenue," says Doug Ferris, chairman of the Poplar Avenue Committee for the Red Acres Neighborhood Association. "They're going to change the whole character of the neighborhood."
Poplar will eventually be the major northern entrance to the university, Ferris believes. The houses on Conlee have already been bulldozed, and the university has requested that the city of Memphis undedicate it and give it to the U of M. The university, through the state board of regents, also owns all but one of the dozen or so houses on Deloach between Poplar and Central, according to county records. Adding a hotel and 1,000-seat ballroom to the parking lot, Lipman Early Childhood School, and married student housing already located north of Central will inevitably lead to a major entrance and traffic light on Poplar, particularly if the university ever gets its wish for a performing arts center in the same general area, Ferris says.
"Where's the stopping?" Ferris asks. "All the way west to Patterson or Highland? There is no planning and nobody communicates."
Not to worry, says Guenther. The performing arts center is on hold, at best, and "I don't see how a small hotel is going to have that much impact on traffic," he says. The university rents the houses it owns on Deloach to faculty and staff and has no pending plans to change that.
Ferris is skeptical. He has no quarrel with the hotel as such but thinks it would be better located south of Central near the athletic facilities. But putting it at Central and Deloach, closing Conlee, and tying Conlee in with Zach Curlin Drive, as planned, will inevitably mean a major entrance off of Poplar. Moreover, Ferris says, the university, as a state entity, is doing something a private hotel developer could never have done on its own hook.
"They deliberately try to defuse something when they know damn well where they are going," says Ferris. "It's invasive, like having a bunch of weeds in your yard."
Few are mincing words in this controversy. Jeanne Coors Arthur, a real estate agent whose son lives in the U of M area, called it "this monstrous development" in a letter to the county planning staff. In July, however, the Land Use Control Board approved the closing of Conlee Street with minor reservations.
Among the likely consequences, the planning report admitted: more traffic on Poplar, a traffic light, and expedited widening of Poplar.
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE SEPTEMBER 2000 ISSUE OF MEMPHIS MAGAZINE
(You can write John Branston at email@example.com