Chick-fil-A eyes Morris Brown for Truett Cathy legacy center

By Maria Saporta
Friday, August 26, 2011

A multipronged effort is under way to create an urban version of Camp WinShape on the underutilized campus of Morris Brown College in downtown Atlanta.

The community complex would be developed to honor the legacy of Truett Cathy, founder and CEO of Chick-fil-A Inc., who also founded Camp WinShape at Berry College in Rome, Ga.

Negotiations are currently under way to locate the “Truett Cathy Youth and Community Center” on the Morris Brown property as part of a long-term lease.

The situation is complicated because of Morris Brown’s financial debts as well as questions of property rights and guarantees.

But the Truett Cathy Center is generating strong civic support, and several different organizations are working through the various issues to try to make the community project a reality.

“We can confirm that progress is being made, and we are hopeful we’ll have full resolution soon,” said Don Perry, Chick-fil-A’s vice president of public relations. “We feel for us to comment further on the matter would not be appropriate at this time.”

In an earlier interview with Chick-fil-A President Dan Cathy before the March celebration of his father’s 90th birthday, he said the center would have a three-pronged mission — to offer a complex with multiple sports; to become a community resource that can help strengthen families; and to provide financial training by partnering with Junior Achievement of Georgia.

The hope is that the project would spark the transformation of the Vine City community in much the same way developer Tom Cousins has helped transform the East Lake community.

At the time, Chick-fil-A officials would not comment on how much they were willing to invest in the project other than to say it would be “significant.”

The Truett Cathy Center would be a multifaceted community complex that would offer physical, emotional and educational support for young people and their families.

Junior Achievement of Georgia is taking “a very serious look” at the opportunity of partnering with Chick-fil-A to establish a JA Finance Park and a JA Biz Town as part of the Truett Cathy Center, according to its president, Jack Harris.

The Finance Park would help teach eighth graders about financial literacy and the Biz Town would be geared to fifth and sixth graders and would focus on work-readiness.

Currently, Junior Achievement has about 20 Biz Towns across the country, and it would like to build one in Atlanta. The total Junior Achievement portion would be about 40,000 square feet and would cost between $5 million and $10 million to develop.

If plans go forward, Junior Achievement likely would launch a campaign next year with the hopes of opening the facility by 2014, Harris said.

The Truett Cathy Center would be open year-round and would focus on helping “families strengthen families.” Plans include using the stadium on the 21-acre Morris Brown property to serve as the athletic base of the program.

But one of the complications is that the Morris Brown property is not owned free and clear by the college.

“Much of the property that Morris Brown has operated on originally was owned by Atlanta University,” said Juanita Baranco, chair of Clark Atlanta University’s board. Clark Atlanta University was formed through a consolidation of Clark College and Atlanta University in 1988.

“Back in the early 1900s, Morris Brown had actually lost its campus. The board and president of Atlanta University, after long and hard deliberations, decided to deed property to Morris Brown with a reversionary clause. If Morris Brown ever ceased to operate as an institution of higher learning, that property would revert back to Clark Atlanta.”

Because the university has a stake in Morris Brown’s campus, Dan Cathy presented his plans for the legacy project at Clark Atlanta’s board meeting in May.

“As a result of that visit, I wrote the Chick-fil-A Foundation and expressed our board’s approval of the legacy project,” Baranco said. “Clark Atlanta University and Morris Brown have been working together to come up with a way for the lease with Chick-fil-A to go forward. We are both committed to the legacy project, but we are trying to get over some legal hurdles.”

For example, Baranco said that about 80 percent of the stadium sits on property that is subject to the reversionary rights. So Clark Atlanta and Morris Brown have been working on a memo of understanding that would enable Chick-fil-A to lease the property with no fear of interruption to the lease.

Other issues also need to be resolved.

Morris Brown, founded in 1881, is a historically black college that is affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

It lost its accreditation and federal funding in 2002 following the well-publicized mismanagement of the school’s finances. Student enrollment drastically declined from about 2,500 to several dozen. After it lost accreditation, the United Negro College Fund also terminated its support for the college.

Morris Brown had owed the U.S. Department of Education nearly $10 million in unused federal aid that the school was supposed to reimburse.
On Aug. 23, Morris Brown announced that a settlement had been reached whereby the college transferred $500,000 to settle its debt with the DOE, according to President Stanley Pritchett.

In the press release announcing the settlement, it also stated that “Morris Brown College will continue its aggressive fundraising efforts to address other debts of the college and to provide needed scholarship aid for students who are attending and those young people who want to enroll.”
Pritchett did not respond to request for an interview.

The Truett Cathy Center project, however, is being viewed as a way to help Morris Brown out of its current fiscal and academic challenges.
The project has received the support of some of the city’s top leaders, including Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Atlanta builder Herman Russell of H.J. Russell & Co.

Baranco said the Chick-fil-A project would be a welcome investment in a community that many view as a disadvantaged area of the city.

“I will say that we are trying to do everything we can to support the Legacy project,” Baranco said, “and Morris Brown’s efforts to regain its accreditation.”

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.

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