Longtime readers of Orlando Sentinel editorials might think they've awakened in the Twilight Zone.
The Sentinel's editorial board has had some epic disagreements with hotelier Harris Rosen. Over a light-rail system between downtown Orlando and International Drive. Over the tax value of his property. Over the plan to tap tourist taxes to build three venues in downtown Orlando. We're on opposite sides again on a current controversy, whether a proposal to legalize resort casinos should allow them in Central Florida.
Yet for the editorial board, these disputes don't overshadow Rosen's achievements as one of Central Florida's most successful and visionary businessmen and one of its most generous philanthropists. He has created thousands of jobs, given millions to a long list of good causes, and devoted much of his personal energy to them.
We chose Rosen as our 2011 Central Floridian of the Year, not with reservation but with enthusiasm.
'Make something of yourself'
The story of Rosen's rise is worthy of a Horatio Alger novel. Born in 1939, he grew up in a gritty part of Manhattan known as the Bowery.
"It was not a gated community," he says dryly. "One learned to be rather self-reliant and tough. Looking back I wouldn't trade that experience for anything."
Rosen and his brother were told by their parents — neither of whom went to college — that education was the key "to make something of yourself." It was a childhood insight that would inform his adult philanthropy. He studied diligently, swam competitively, and got accepted at Cornell University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in hotel administration in 1961.
After graduating, he served in the U.S. Army, where he learned about motivation and leadership.
Rosen held a series of jobs with other hotels and resorts, including Disney, before going into business for himself in 1974. In the depths of a national recession, he bought a bankrupt hotel on International Drive for just $20,000. Today he's president and chief operating officer of Rosen Hotels and Resorts, with seven Central Florida properties — including that first hotel — 6,300 rooms and more than 3,500 employees.
Building his company
Rosen's business has profited from visitors generated by the huge, publicly funded Orange County Convention Center. But he has built his company following a plan that could have been written by Ben Franklin:
Frugality. He lived in his first hotel for 16 years, and still maintains his office in a couple of rooms there. On the job, he prefers polo shirts and blue jeans to business suits.
Hard work. As he began his business, he did a half-dozen jobs himself. Even at 72, he maintains a grueling daily schedule.
Little debt. His company saves tens of millions of dollars a year in interest payments, and was in better shape than his competitors to withstand the Great Recession.
Rosen also figures his company saves some $20 million a year by encouraging healthy lifestyles among employees, whom he calls associates, and providing them with health care at an on-site clinic, a money-saving model adopted by several local governments. Employees aren't allowed to smoke, but can get help quitting at company expense. If they're overweight, they can enroll in a supervised weight-loss program, also on the company's dime. A pair of members of Congress who visited to investigate his approach to health care told him it would save the nation $1 trillion if every U.S. employer did the same.
Rosen personally sets an example. He doesn't smoke or drink and exercises every day. Most workdays that includes an hour swimming at the YMCA Aquatic Center on I-Drive, a facility he helped rescue in 1992 with a $100,000 donation. Remarkably fit for a man his age, Rosen swims lap after lap, executing flip turns in between.
Giving back in Tangelo Park
Rosen wasn't focused on much beyond business during the early years of his career. A father of four, he married relatively late in life. But about two decades ago, "I said to myself, 'You know, Harris, God has been so incredibly good to you. … It's time for you to demonstrate that appreciation and start giving back to those who need a helping hand.'"
In 1993, he launched his signature effort to give back. At the encouragement of Mable Butler, Orange County's first African-American commissioner, he adopted Tangelo Park, a poor, predominantly African-American neighborhood of about 2,400 residents not far from the I-Drive tourist corridor that made him rich.
Rosen promised to provide free pre-school for all of the community's 2-, 3-, and 4-year-olds, and to bankroll scholarships to cover the full costs of college or vocational school for every graduating high school senior. He established a center to provide counseling and courses for parents, and expanded the community's YMCA.
Rosen's charitable foundation has contributed some $9 million to make good on his promises to Tangelo Park. More than 400 children have benefited from free preschool, and more than 200 high-school graduates have received scholarships. The drop-out rate and crime in the neighborhood plummeted, while property values and pride soared.
Georgia Gordon, now 63, was a single mother living in Tangelo Park when Rosen adopted the neighborhood. She got a job as one of the program's licensed preschool providers. One of her daughters eventually received a Rosen-provided college scholarship and now works as an executive with an Orlando payroll company. Three of her grandchildren also got scholarships.
"This man has blessed my family," says Gordon, who knows Rosen and calls him a friend. "I wish there was someone like him in other communities."
Rosen considers his Tangelo Park program another template for national policy — in this case, turning around the nation's struggling neighborhoods without relying on government. If other businesses and foundations would adopt those communities, "We would not recognize America," he says.
Haiti and pizza
For more than a decade, Rosen has taken an ambitious and transformational approach to helping Haiti, where up to a third of his hotel employees have roots. "That little country has just suffered so," he says.
Rosen's foundation has donated and delivered school and medical supplies to Haiti. It has raised enough money to provide and maintain 200 water-filtration devices in rural areas. After Haiti was devastated by an earthquake a year ago, he arranged emergency relief shipments and spearheaded a drive to raise $1 million, contributing $250,000 of his own.
Shifting his attention to a sustainable future for the country, he launched a program to provide Haitians with low-cost, energy-efficient and disaster-resistant houses in small, self-sufficient villages. Rosen is partnering with the Catholic Church, and met with Haiti's president during a visit last year to the country to inspect the site for the first village. It's typical of his hands-on approach to the causes he supports.
The Haiti project reflects the innovative side of Rosen's philanthropy, also seen in another recent project close to home. Last year 53 Orange County schools began serving more-nutritious pizza from a recipe he created to encourage kids to eat healthier. All of his profits from selling the pizza go to scholarships and educational grants.
Just a few of the other highlights in Rosen's extensive record of giving include money and land totaling $18 million to establish a campus for the University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality Management; $3.5 million to build a Jewish community center; and ongoing sponsorship for military organizations. He encourages his employees to get involved by helping to choose the causes to support and dedicating their time as volunteers.
Rosen has a well-earned reputation not just for giving but also for tenaciously promoting his business interests.
"I'd rather be on the same side of an issue with him than the opposite side," says former Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty. "He's a formidable opponent."
Crotty locked horns with Rosen as the mayor helped lead the successful effort in 2007 to raise the county's hotel/motel tax by a penny and dedicate the proceeds to building a downtown arena and a performing-arts center and refurbishing the Citrus Bowl. Years earlier, when he was Orange County property appraiser, Crotty clashed with Rosen over the tax value of one of his hotels.
Yet Crotty considers Rosen a friend, and calls himself a "huge admirer" of the hotel magnate. In 2008, the year after Crotty and Rosen had squared off over the venues, Crotty's teenage son was involved in a serious car accident that injured a young child. Crotty said just a few people reached out to him to offer their support. One was Rosen.
"He's a compassionate guy who cares about people," Crotty says.
Rosen says he is driven by an "entrepreneurial gene" to build his business. He hopes to keep working into his 80s. But he considers philanthropy to be the "perfect balance" to his hard work.
"You know, the crazy thing is that giving is so joyful," he says. "The return on that investment, if you can put it in business terms, is so unbelievable that I often wonder why people who can don't."
Rosen can, and does.
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