Maggie Mayfield is a senior studying hospitality management at Auburn University, and the past few years have been good ones for her.
Initially, she took classes in venerable Spidle Hall and learned on-the-job at The Hotel at Auburn University & Dixon Conference Center.
But in September, that experience took several leaps forward with the opening of the 142,000-square-foot, $110 million Tony & Libba Rane Culinary Science Center, a six-story complex at the corner of Thach Avenue and South College Street comprising classrooms, the Laurel Hotel & Spa, the fine restaurant 1856, a coffee shop and more.
“It’s absolutely spectacular,” says Mayfield, who is from Alpharetta, Georgia. “It’s certainly improved my learning, because we’re doing everything ourselves. … We have the opportunity to work in all of the different areas.”
At the center’s dedication in 2022, Susan Hubbard, dean of Auburn’s College of Human Sciences, called it “an academic center unlike any in the world, one offering an elevated hospitality management education to students and elevated hospitality experiences to the visitor.”
Martin O’Neill, now head of Auburn’s Horst Schulze School of Hospitality, says Hubbard and others were already dreaming of such a complex when he came to Auburn 20 years ago.
“Hospitality has always been booming in the state, and we noticed an astronomical growth in programs on the high-school level, but there were really not enough opportunities for them to move on post-high school,” O’Neill says. “We started looking at where they were going, and too many students were going out of state for dedicated culinary programs, and we didn’t have the facility.”
So around 2015, O’Neill and a team began researching other programs and facilities worldwide. The group included experts like Hans van der Reijden, founder and CEO of Ithaka Hospitality Partners, which runs the business end of both the Laurel Hotel & Spa and the Hotel at Auburn University & Dixon Conference Center.
“We came back to meet with our dean, thinking it would be either/or, taking the lodging route or culinary route,” O’Neill recalls. “Out of that meeting came, why not do both?”
They also approached Auburn trustee Jimmy Rane, founder and CEO of Great Southern Wood Preserving, about the project and, according to O’Neill, “He took to it immediately.”
“A line that has always stuck with me is, ‘There’s no shortage of money, there’s just a shortage of good ideas,’” O’Neill says. “That day, he heard an idea that made good sense to him.”
Rane made the lead gift of $12 million for the center, which is named after his parents.
Construction also was a local affair, with Auburn-based Bailey-Harris Construction building the facility.
“Auburn University has been one of our most important clients for decades,” says Jack Sommer, project director for Bailey-Harris, which has also worked on Auburn projects that include the Jordan-Hare Gameday Support Facility, the School of Nursing, football’s indoor practice facility, the Wellness Kitchen, Mell Classroom Addition, Auburn University Medical Clinic and the Harold D. Melton Student Center.
The Rane Center faced challenges from the beginning, not only because of its complexity. The facility includes high-end hotel rooms, roof-top amenities including an event center, culinary teaching kitchens, a teaching restaurant and pool, among many other things, not to mention state-of-the-art classrooms.
“When you have so many parts and pieces coming together into one project, challenges are endless,” Sommer says. “We broke ground in March of 2020, right when the COVID pandemic exploded, creating labor shortages, supply-chain nightmares and material cost escalation around every corner.
“An already complex project became almost insurmountable,” he adds. “Nonetheless, thanks to incredible trade partners, creative problem-solving and sheer grit and determination, Auburn University was able to open this long-awaited project on time.”
Bailey-Harris employs many Auburn alumni, Sommer says.
“Many of our co-workers drive by the Rane Center on a daily basis, and I think they would agree with me that it will never be ‘just another project’ for us,” he says. “The RCSC is a one-of-a-kind facility, and it was an honor to build. For Bailey-Harris, this project is not just quantified in dollars and square feet. … Anytime you get to work on a project that will be around, serving the community you love, long after you’re gone, it’s special.”
It’s special for O’Neill and his cohorts at the Horst Schulze School of Hospitality Management as well. The school, named after the former Ritz Carlton president and COO who has been a big supporter of Auburn’s program, offers a bachelor of science in hospitality management, with a focus on hotel and restaurant management, culinary science or event management.
“At this point, we’re still the only professionally accredited hospitality management program in the state of Alabama and one of only 49 internationally that hold that designation,” O’Neill says.
Though students learn on the job at the Rane Center’s various businesses, those businesses are operated to make a profit.
“I’m into the educational aspect of it, so it’s not money-making for me,” O’Neill says. “We’re all about enrollment and growing programs, but there is a commercial side to it, and that’s what Ithaka handles for the university. There’s a 32-key teaching hotel, 46-seat teaching restaurant, coffee shop, brewery opening in March, spa, all commercially oriented and profit-driven.”
The classrooms are “all wonderful spaces” that can be rearranged and designed specific to whatever is being taught at the time.
At the dedication of the Rane Center, Hubbard, who became dean of the college in 2019, called the opening “a moment born out of what first seemed like a dream.”
For Mayfield, that dream come true means an unparalleled experience for her and, perhaps more importantly, for students to come.
“This new school has opened the doors for me to have a better understanding of what it truly looks like to open a hotel, a coffee shop and a restaurant from the start to making a profit,” she says. “It’s a wonderful experience, and it’s an honor to be, in a sense, the guinea pig. It’s such an honor to be one of the first students to help all of the students who are going to be in the hospitality program for years to come.”
Alec Harvey is executive editor of Business Alabama and Julie Bennett is an Auburn-based freelance contributor.
This article appears in the February 2023 issue of Business Alabama.