Morgan seeks room to expand

Shopping center site would house college's hospitality program

January 19, 2001|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

Officials at Morgan State University said yesterday that they hope to buy part of the Northwood Plaza shopping center for a hotel and conference center that would house the school's hospitality management program.

"It is an absolutely ideal site for the project, which we have in our capital improvement program," said Ray Vollmer, Morgan's associate vice president for finance and management.

Plans call for a hotel with about 100 rooms and a conference center that would accommodate about 1,000 people, with classrooms, offices and other academic facilities.

The proposal is being greeted cautiously by community leaders, who have long been interested in the fate of the small shopping center between Loch Raven Boulevard and Hillen Road.

"What Morgan has in mind is seen as something positive, but we would like to hear an overall plan for the shopping center, not just bits and pieces," said Paula Purviance, president of the Hillen Road Improvement Association.

Morgan is not interested in buying the entire shopping center, only the eastern part, a building that once housed a Hecht Co. store and now contains a Burlington Coat Factory on its upper floor. Its bottom floor has been vacant since Hechinger went out of business in 1999. It is owned by Olson Enterprises of Washington.

The western part of the center - a traditional strip mall - has a different owner.

"Hopefully, it would give a boost to the rest of the shopping center if it is done right," said City Councilman Robert Curran, whose 3rd District includes the area.

Edward Sommerfeldt, who co-chairs the Northwood Shopping Center Task Force with Purviance, said there has been tension between community groups and Morgan State over the years.

"There is a residue of ill feelings, typical town-gown type of things," Sommerfeldt said. "But we have met for hours and hours on this and developed some mutual respect. If Morgan could get that shopping center property, I think that the people in the area would be pretty welcoming of it."

Morgan State initially announced the possibility of building a $30 million hotel and conference center more than two years ago, planning to place it on Hillen Road south of the school's engineering building.

School officials said that site, which will be used for a communications building, turned out to be too small.

"We started looking around when Hechinger's went into default, meaning a large part of that building is currently vacant," Vollmer said. "We think it's a win-win situation, not only for Morgan, but for the community that has been a bit concerned about that space sitting there vacant."

Morgan State might be helped by the recent agreement between the state and the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights that calls for improvements to the state's historically black schools over the next five years. School President Earl Richardson told state legislators this week that getting Morgan's building projects completed in that time would help the state comply with the agreement.

Vollmer said the school was looking to speed up the hotel project before the agreement was signed with federal civil rights officials.

"The state has the project toward the end of the five-year capital improvement project," he said. "Now we would like the state's help in expediting it."

Buying the shopping center building would mark Morgan's first expansion west of Hillen Road, though the school leases parking lots at the center.

"Even if we don't put the hospitality management center there, we would still need that site, because we are landlocked," Vollmer said.

Morgan officials see the proposed hotel as fitting nicely with the school's recent expansion south of Argonne Drive, where it is constructing a performing arts center.

"It seems to me that it would be the perfect complement," said Otis A. Thomas, dean of Morgan's school of business and management, which includes the hospitality management program.

"Now we have some fast food restaurants in the area, but when there are concerts in the performing arts center, it would be natural for people to want to have a place to have dinner before or after," he said. "Or for those coming from out of town to stay overnight."

Thomas said the hotel, conference center and restaurants would give practical experience to students in the hospitality management program.

"It currently has about 100 students," Thomas said, indicating the hotel project would allow the program to grow. "The visibility would certainly enhance it."

Morgan plans to look for a hotel chain to manage the facility. "We have been exploring options, but so far have not found the right combination," Thomas said. "This would work well if you find the right partner, but we have to make sure it's a good marriage."

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