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Miller family gift, Hilton donation takes hospitality program to new heights

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Thanks to a generous gift from university friend, trustee and philanthropist Robert Miller, Mercyhurst University – The North East Campus is growing once again.

The culinary and hospitality associate degree programs will have a new home thanks to his gift of nearly nine acres of the Miller Estate, 1640 Freeport Road in North East.

The estate’s location – across the street from campus, close to the newly relocated Mercyhurst Farm and next door to the North East public schools – will prove especially valuable, says Ken Zirkle, Ph.D., chief operating officer and associate provost at Mercyhurst North East.

“This picturesque property will help us develop culinary and hospitality programs that will receive national recognition,” Zirkle said. “Furthermore, it will allow us to expand partnerships with the North East school district – our neighbors, right next door.”

Miller noted that one of his main motivations for gifting the property was to see it become the site for increased collaboration between the Mercyhurst and North East communities.

“The partnerships that will take root here will promote the growth and development of young people through hands-on learning opportunities,” he said. “That will, in turn, benefit the growth and development of the community.”

For 25 years, Miller, his wife and their seven children lived at the 12-acre residence.

The property, valued at over $1 million, features a 5,600-square-foot home, gorgeous gardens, spacious garage, a rustic barn and five acres of Concord grapes. Also on the premises is the headquarters of Better Baked Foods, the company Miller co-founded in 1969.

The Miller Estate will transform into an interactive culinary and hospitality learning lab with high-end, professional-grade equipment. The first phase of the plan, thanks to a donation from Hilton Worldwide, will install a demo hotel room with real Hilton furniture, fixtures and equipment, as well as an industrial laundry lab. Design plans for the demo room are being handled locally by Buehler & Associates.

The second phase of the plan, still in preliminary development, will modernize the barn into a culinary instructional kitchen. Though construction will take a few years to complete, initial plans include an observation kitchen; individual wine tasting sinks with spittoons; and a conference room to use for classes, meetings or events.

The Miller Estate, officially gifted to the university in 2012, has already been the setting for the university’s popular series of community cooking classes. Miller’s generosity has been a key piece of the Mercyhurst North East story since it opened in 1991, thanks to his backing. Since then, Miller has continued to help propel the campus to new heights with two $1 million challenge grants through the Robert S. and Janet L. Miller Family Foundation: First to establish an endowment that has since surpassed $2 million, and then to open the Janet L. Miller Center for Growth and Academic Excellence (formerly the First National Bank building on Station Road).

Students at both the North East and Erie campuses will have access to the Miller Estate labs. Daryl Georger, assistant professor of hospitality, says this unique facility will give students hands-on opportunities unparalleled by any school in the region.

“We’ve been really blessed to receive these kinds of donations,” Georger said. “Between this and the newly constructed Center for Academic Engagement on the Erie campus, our culinary and hospitality programs will continue to be world-class.”