Real Estate Gives Back: Harris Rosen Saves Minds

In the first installment of our series on philanthropy in real estate, CPE spotlights hotel mogul Harris Rosen, whose volunteer-run foundation provides assistance to impoverished residents of two Orange County, Fla., communities.
Harris Rosen

Drugs, crime, and prostitution were once the hallmarks of Tangelo Park, an impoverished community of about 2,400 in Orange County, Florida. That all began to change in 1993, however, when Orlando hotel mogul Harris Rosen launched a program to provide free pre-school and college scholarships (including room, board, books and tuition) to high school graduates in the community who were accepted to Florida vocational schools, colleges or universities.

“We just got a report from the sheriff’s office that in the 26 years we’ve been doing this program in Tangelo Park, crime in the neighborhood is now down 78 percent from where it was,” said Rosen. “High school graduation rates have improved from the 40 percent to 50 percent to virtually 100 percent. College graduation rates in four years are now in the mid- to upper 70s.”

To date, more than 200 Tangelo Park residents have earned associate, college and graduate degrees joined the labor force as doctors, lawyers, plumbers, electricians, and teachers, among other professions.

Rosen himself grew up in the tough neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen on the east side of Manhattan. He was the first in his family to attend and graduate from college, earning a bachelor’s degree in hospitality management from Cornell University. He was also the first in his family to serve in the military and worked at several hotels, including the Waldorf Astoria in New York City and the Walt Disney Company, before striking out on his own.

In 1975 in the depth of the oil embargo, Rosen acquired his first hotel, a 256-room Quality Inn in Southwest Orlando where he lived and worked in an office on the second floor for the next 16 years, delaying the start of his family until his 50s.

Hands-on Helper

More than four decades later, he still works in the same space running Rosen Hotels & Resorts, which now encompasses eight Orlando hotels comprised of close to 7,000 rooms all debt free. That, including the AAA Four Diamond 1,501-room Rosen Shingle Creek as well as the 1,334-room Rosen Centre and the 800-room Rosen Plaza, both connected to the Orange County Convention Center’s West Building, and the 640-room Clarion Inn Lake Buena Vista next to Walt Disney World.

The success of Rosen’s “little” company as he calls it has allowed the hotel magnate to give away tens of millions of dollars through his foundation to support education and communities in a myriad of ways, from donating $18 million to build UCF’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management to $5.1 million to build the state-of-the-art Jack and Lee Rosen Jewish Community Center and a pre-school, also in Southwest Orlando.

Rosen’s success as a philanthropist may also be the result of his hands-on involvement combined with the fact that his foundation is run entirely by volunteers and, therefore, unencumbered by administrative costs. Over the life of the 26-year Tangelo Park program, for example, Rosen has rarely missed the monthly meeting with neighborhood families, who also receive assistance with health care, counseling and parenting skills.

Harris and student

These days, Tangelo Park’s meetings are held in conjunction with a second adopted community of about 3,200 called Parramore, where Rosen built the 24-classroom pre-school and annually funds the staff salaries. With an average household income of just $13,613 and a child poverty rate of 73 percent, Parramore is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Orlando.

The programs now draw inspiration from an alumni association that meets once a year at one of Rosen’s hotels to celebrate young people from the neighborhoods who are either attending or have graduated from college.

But Rosen doesn’t have to wait for the annual dinner to see the graduates—many seek him out to say thank you and sometimes he meets them randomly, as was the case once when he was getting a prescription filled. The pharmacist read Rosen’s name and declared out of the blue, “You’re Mr. Rosen. I’m a pharmacist!”

The statement didn’t register with Rosen until the pharmacist added, “Tangelo Park!”

“There are hundreds of stories like that,” says Rosen. “It’s so absolutely wonderful to have an impact on a life. It is something that is absolutely incredible.”