|By Kathleen Purvis, The Charlotte Observer, N.C.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Aug. 23, 2004 - Trade Street won't eclipse Paris as the epicenter of the culinary world.
Four-star tables will not sprout like toadstools overnight.
But when Johnson & Wales University's Charlotte campus finally welcomes its first students Sept. 6, a change will begin that will reverberate through the city.
"On a scale of 1 to 10, excitement is at a 10," says Jim Palermo.
"And it's legitimate."
As chairman of Center City Partners, Palermo helped recruit the university in 2002. Now he's on its staff, as "executive in residence."
He knows Johnson & Wales won't change the restaurant scene overnight. Its students will be learning and growing, not rushing out to open new restaurants.
But with an incoming student body of about 1,200 and a final enrollment estimated at more than 4,000 by 2007, the university will have a lasting impact, providing students to work for local companies, drawing attention to the city and perhaps staying on after graduation to open their own businesses.
"I don't sense in the general population a real awareness of Johnson & Wales yet and its real impact on the future," says urban planner Michael Gallis of Charlotte. "Johnson & Wales is really going to take all of this to another level.
"It's going to be a new era for Charlotte."
If you haven't driven along West Trade Street lately, you might have missed Charlotte's newest face. The campus has risen faster than a loaf of bread with extra yeast.
Two years ago, Johnson & Wales announced it would close campuses in Charleston and Norfolk, Va., and build a ground-breaking culinary and business school in the center of the Gateway district. It was lured by both an urban location and attractive public and private deals.
The city sold it land for $1 million that had been valued at $7 million; food-service giant Compass Group and the state kicked in at least $12 million; and Bank of America offered incentives that included reduced rates for space in Gateway Village and Gateway Center. The university's eventual economic impact is expected to be at least $100 million a year.
After the initial announcement, even the university was surprised by the interest from prospective students. It got more than 6,000 applications for the first freshman class and ended up supersizing everything, enlarging the expected incoming class from 885 to 1,210 and increasing the cost of the campus from $82 million to $112 million.
Even after opening satellite campuses in four other U.S. cities, J&W officials agree they've never had a reception quite like it.
"I don't think we've ever been embraced by all aspects of the city like this," says Karl Guggenmos. Based at the main campus in Providence, R.I., Guggenmos is dean of culinary education for all of the J&W campuses.
"The mayor, the leaders, the business community. Nothing we've ever done compares to what we have experienced so far in Charlotte."
More than just chefs
Along the way, there has been constant speculation on just what having a new university uptown will mean.While Johnson & Wales is known for its culinary school, its officials are quick to point out that chefs are not all they produce. A private, nonprofit, accredited school, J&W calls itself a "career university," with majors in culinary and baking, but also in business and hospitality.
So while students will certainly fill restaurant kitchens and staff hotel front desks, they will be students. They won't open restaurants all over town, at least for a few years yet.
"You know where I think it will change the most?" says Douglas Allen, president of the local chapter of the American Culinary Federation. "Service. The service side will change a lot. You don't have that much room in the kitchen to put an additional six people on the line (cooking)."
"It's simply going to up the bar on what quality is," says Gallis.
"That's going to put pressure on everybody, and I think that will be regionally."
Denver is a city comparable in size to Charlotte where Johnson & Wales opened a slightly smaller campus four years ago. People there say the university is a good corporate citizen, providing well-trained students to fill jobs. But it hasn't shaken up the local food scene.
"That's a pretty tough ship to turn, especially when you're talking about one single institution," says Denver restaurant consultant John Imbergamo. "I don't know the impact has filtered down to the average consumer in any great way."
But the university has become a valuable member of the community.
"They are spectacular neighbors and I don't say that lightly," says Imbergamo. "They have hooked into this community, especially from a nonprofit point of view, in a way I don't think I've ever seen before."
Imbergamo cites Taste of the Nation, a national fund-raiser for the food charity Share Our Strength. Denver's version used to be held at Coors Field, the local baseball stadium. Johnson & Wales took on the job of hosting the event.
"They do a ton of logistical work -- students, administration, all kinds of people who work on this event and make it happen." The yearly event is now on the J&W campus, featuring 60 restaurants and 90 wineries. "It's a beautiful event. It's like a lawn party. They just do that. And they do that over and over again."
More vibrant uptown
The first and most visible impact will come from the student body, as Gateway's office workers and condominium dwellers are joined by more than a thousand 18- to 24-year-olds.
"Walk around at lunchtime and you'll see young people in shorts and T-shirts and earrings, not just office workers," predicts Peter Lehmuller, the campus's dean of culinary education. Lehmuller came from J&W's Norfolk campus. Sitting in a temporary space in Gateway Village in early August, he painted a vivid picture of student life: skateboarding, tossing footballs, hanging out at Starbucks, coming and going late at night.
"You'll see them. Kids will find things to do."
He also expects Gateway Village to change quickly to accommodate them.
"You want to get rich? Open a pizza delivery stand or an MP3 store down here."
It's that quickening of the uptown pulse that has many people excited.
"Having a large infusion of young people is really going to add a new dimension to life in the downtown," says Gallis. "What gives flair and fun to downtowns is creativity and innovation. Manhattan has publishing, the fashion industry, the arts, things that lend a glamour to the city. I think of Johnson & Wales as adding that dimension."
The impact on restaurants will be more subtle and take longer.
"There's good restaurants in Charlotte," says Guggenmos, who has visited often since 2002. "But I think there's immense room for improvement. It's going to be up to Charlotte to utilize the students coming in. It's not going to happen overnight, it's not going to happen in a year. But I think it will be interesting to see what the impact will be."
Guggenmos cites Charleston, where Johnson & Wales has a satellite campus that will remain open until 2006. As the city shifted from a naval and shipping town to a tourist destination, its restaurant scene attracted national attention. Johnson & Wales didn't create that, he says, but was a part of making it possible.
"We provided a very sophisticated employee base. Out of that, students that worked in those locations were able to help promote and develop a culinary culture. And I think you will see a start of that (in Charlotte). You'll see restaurant employees that are better trained."
Restaurants are expensive to open and exhausting to run. College graduates don't look for business loans; they look for jobs to pay for student loans.
Still, a few years down the road, many expect a more vibrant dining scene.
"It adds a dimension," says Gallis, whose work in urban planning takes him all over the world. "When I go to Charleston, one of the things I want to do is go to the wonderful restaurants. Or Providence or San Francisco, when you think of those cities, one of the things that puts a smile on your face is the food."
For their own part, the faculty and staff moving in have been as happy to find Charlotte as Charlotte has been to find them.
Lehmuller is excited by the possibility of fusing a business city with food. In other cities, he says, restaurant districts start small and struggle to grow.
"Capital is already here," he says. "It's incredible. In most cities, ideas chase after money. Here, money chases after ideas.
"Do I think our students will stay? Yeah. See this city with a stranger's eyes and people say, 'What a place. What a cool place.'
"In 20 years, we're all going to look back and say, 'What an exciting two decades this has been.' Johnson & Wales will play some small part in that."
WHAT'S IN STORE
--Charlotte officials offered major incentives to recruit Johnson & Wales University to its uptown on Trade Street. Its eventual economic impact is expected to be at least $100 million a year.
--Because of demand, J&W increased its first year enrollment from 885 to 1,210. By 2007, there will be more than 4,000 students studying culinary arts, business, food service and hospitality.
--There won't be a restaurant or a bakery, but you could sign up for an occasional cooking class. You also can shop at the bookstore.
-----To see more of The Charlotte Observer, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.charlotte.com.
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