Developer Jim Cumming donates downtown office tower for high school

By Maria Saporta
As published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on September 25, 2015.

Atlanta developer Jim Cumming has done well over the decades buying and selling real estate — not giving it away.

So when Bill Garrett, president of the Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School, looked Cumming straight in the eye and asked if he would give the nonprofit the seven-story Oxford Industries building in downtown Atlanta, Cumming quickly answered: “Impossible. No way. We will do something. But we are not giving you the building.”

Then a couple of nights later, Cumming woke up at 3 a.m. thinking about Cristo Rey and Garrett.

“I told him it was totally impossible; that it was never going to happen,” Cumming said in an interview. “But somebody has been watching out over me. I’ve had extraordinary good luck and good fortune. Maybe it’s not impossible.”

Bill Garrett Jim Cumming

Cristo Rey’s Bill Garrett and developer Jim Cumming talk about the history of the gift of the downtown Oxford building to the Jesuit high school (Photo by Maria Saporta)

On Sept. 14, Cumming, owner of Trillium Management Inc., signed over the 70,000-square-foot building to Cristo Rey. The building has been empty since 2012 when clothing-maker Oxford Industries Inc. moved to Midtown.

The school, which has been open since July 2015, is part of a national model that provides college preparatory education to high school students from lower income families.

As a way to help pay their tuition, all the Cristo Rey high school students are expected to have a job, and dozens of Atlanta companies and organizations have signed up to hire them.

The work-study partnership model is one of the reasons why 100 percent of Cristo Rey graduates in the 28 schools around the nation are accepted to colleges each year.

Cristo Rey Atlanta started with a freshman class last year; and it is adding a class every year. At that rate of growth, it is going to outgrow its current Midtown location by July 2017 when it is expected to have a total of 500 students.

“Nothing kept me up more at night than our location,” Garrett said. “We needed to be close to MARTA so they [students] could get to it and go to work. We wanted a place that was visible from the highway. We really didn’t have other options if we didn’t get that building.”

It would have cost Cristo Rey $750,000 a year to lease the building, which was more than the school could afford. So Garrett had to turn to a higher power.

“We believe firmly in the power of prayer, and we prayed a lot for this man,” Garrett said of Cumming.

Maybe it was divine intervention because it resonated with Cumming at a deep emotional level.

“The defining moment was when Bill said, ‘I would like for you to come and visit the facility,” Cumming said. “I went this past spring. I started to get flashbacks from well over 50 years ago when I was in Jesuit schools. I even remember the color of the ties. Here is what occurred to me: ‘This place can change lives.’ I’m watching these kids. If you can change lives, you can change families, and if you change families, you can change communities.”

Then Cumming reflected on how education had given him a huge advantage.

“Our feeling is that once we get someone inside the building, it’s game over,” Garrett said.

Oxford building

The Oxford building in downtown Atlanta on Piedmont will become the home of the Cristo Rey High School (Special)

During an interview with Atlanta Business Chronicle, it was obvious Cumming is not used to giving buildings away. He talked about a couple of deals that fell through to turn the Oxford building into a boutique hotel. He is convinced he could have made substantial money if he had held onto the building.

“There’s no question there’s a tax benefit [from donating the building to the school], but it doesn’t compare to the revenue you would get in the marketplace if you sold it,” Cumming said, estimating he could have gotten $5 million for the property, or about twice what he bought it for in 2013. “Bill is an impressive guy, and he’s doing God’s work. Every once in a while there’s a situation when the highest and best use of a property is not defined by the financial yield.”

Garrett said the building dates back to 1964 and is in need of renovation — estimated to cost up to $8 million. Also, plans exist to turn part of the roof of the parking garage into a gym, which is estimated to cost another $4 million.

The Catholic Jesuit school is planning to launch a $12 million campaign so it can move into the building for the 2017/2018 academic year.

That’s when Monique Epps and Adrian Rivas will be seniors.

Rivas, 15, said his mother thought it would be a good option for her son, who is now working at HD Supply Inc.

Epps and her identical twin sister, Monica, are both attending Cristo Rey for the same reason.

“I thought going to a good high school would be a way to change your life,” said Epps, who is working at law firm Alston & Bird LLP. “Not many people get to work at a job when they’re in high school.” Epps also wants to be a lawyer one day.

Michael Stephens, director of human resources at Alston & Bird, was meeting the four students that would be working at the firm during Cristo Rey’s “Draft Day” on Aug. 14.

“It’s just absolutely amazing,” Stephens said. “Cristo Rey seems to be setting up these kids for a bright future in high school and beyond. We have a great environment with 800 attorneys, so hopefully we’ll be able to lay a foundation for them to consider a legal career or a career in the firm.”

Paul Brown, CEO of Arby’s Restaurant Group, also was meeting the company’s four student employees at Draft Day. The company signed up for a second year because the first year was so successful. “They were very productive,” Brown said.

It was witnessing Cristo Rey in action that convinced Cumming to do something he has rarely done – give away real estate rather than sell it.

But Cumming said he has been influenced by the Jesuit teachings of Pope Francis, who is visiting the United States for the first time as the Oxford building is changing hands to Cristo Rey.

As Cumming reflected, “A lot of us need to do more than we are doing.”

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

5 replies
  1. Cristo Rey Parent says:

    Thank you, Mr. Cumming! I am a parent of a Cristo Rey scholar, and this school is changing her life in a way I never imagined! Your generosity is amazing and appreciated more than you can imagine!Report

    Reply
  2. Jeff O says:

    Whaaat ! That is amazing, I am the Maintenance Supervisor at Depaul Cristo Rey High School in Cincinnati , Ohio. We just had are 1st Graduating class this past year and I can tell you first hand that these schools do change lives ! It  is amazing to see , Mr Cumming you have truly done something Wonderful for a lot of Family’s  for years to come Good Luck to you and the school !Report

    Reply
  3. Dave T says:

    Jim is without a doubt, a paragon of humanism through and through. It’s truly is people like Mr. Cumming that make Atlanta a city ‘ too busy to hate’, but evidently also not to busy to not give a damn.     There are a good deal of people in Atlanta who give back, but Jim to those lucky enough to know him, is probably the most singularly uplifting personality this city has been lucky to have in the past couple of decades.Report

    Reply
  4. Richard Rothman says:

    As Jim Cumming’s longtime friend, colleague and tenant for 20 years, I am not surprised to read this. The genuineness of this soft-spoken man, his love for people, generosity, positive attitude, and persistent commitment and investment in quality growth in Atlanta and elsewhere have long earned Jim the highest respect of his peers. Thanks Maria, for spotlighting this remarkable project and those who made it possible.Report

    Reply

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