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Julian MacQueen has been wildly successful in the hotel business with Innisfree Hotels. An adventurer of sorts, he decided at an early age that the beach is where he wanted to be. Much has been written about his hotel management and development company, flying exploits, and religious sojourn. He’s quick to point out that the best thing he’s ever done was marry his wife of over four decades, Kim. They are truly a team.
At Scenic 98 Coastal, we’ve touched on the revitalization of downtown Pensacola, and Julian is quick to credit the efforts of Quint and Rishy Studer for getting the ball rolling with their vision of making Pensacola America’s First Learning City. Kim and Julian’s names kept popping up as I listened to what was happening in Pensacola. I scheduled a sit-down with Julian through mutual friends at his office in Gulf Breeze.
What I found was an engaging, casual, and friendly guy who was passionate about making a difference in the communities in which his hotel business serves. At 72, his business career is winding down a bit but his energy level to make a difference in the lives of others is at an all-time high.
Don’t get me wrong, Innisfree Hotels is still going strong and is growing at a brisk pace. With $750 million in assets and over 2000 employees, it places his hospitality empire as the 42 largest in America according to Hotel Business Magazine. Ten years or so ago, Julian and Kim began giving serious thought to how they could deploy their largesse to improve opportunities for the underserved communities in Pensacola. They felt education was the first priority.
Though Innisfree Hotels, Kim and Julian established The HIVE Foundation to help build better communities in the places where they operate properties. They have decided to leave their hospitality empire as a Legacy Company where all assets and profits go back to serve the communities. “It’s a core belief that we should be using our financial prosperity and employee talent to give back to the places we call home,’ says Rusty Branch, Executive Director of The HIVE Foundation.
Over the last decade, Julian and Kim have earnestly put their efforts into changing the environment for underserved neighborhoods. “Communication is key,” said Julian. “There are so many misconceptions and facts that most people can’t begin to relate to. One of the first steps was trying to get people talking about systemic racism in our communities. Everyone is trying to figure it out,” he says. ”It shouldn’t be used as a weapon for attack.”
“We started a small discussion group that met every other week, black and white leaders together,” says Julian. Called the Equity Project Alliance, EPA wanted to get past the “everyone is a racist” mentality and focus on the issues that needed to be addressed to help improve opportunities for underserved communities. Soon, members of the group began inviting others to participate.
The outcome was positive and noticed by a large, local advertising company. “This is good stuff; we need to take it public,” said Dickie Appleyard, owner of Appleyard Agency. The Appleyard Agency took the discussions public with groups of 150 people participating. Now in their second year, there have been several group sessions with new participants entering the conversation as they have grown.
When Julian and Kim first started putting an education stake in the ground, they leased the Dixon School in the poorest zip code in Pensacola. Their goal was to focus on K through 8th-grade education. The school itself was in deplorable condition and required a $2 million investment just to make it operable. It became the Dixon School for the Arts and Sciences.
Julian and Kim joined Lutimothy May, a Baptist minister in Pensacola to help get the school on the right track. The goal was to enhance the education of the students through the arts. It soon became apparent that most parents’ interaction with the school had been negative, and an adversarial relationship with school leaders existed, and that needed to change.
Julian learned of a program in Savannah, Georgia called Parent University led by Michael O’Neal that helped bring parents into a positive school relationship. Julian, a graduate of the University of South Alabama had visited with Mobile Mayor, Sandy Stimpson who was instrumental in establishing Prichard Preparatory Academy in Prichard, Alabama, and wanted to learn from his experience as well.
Julian started by bringing Michael O’Neal and Parent University to Pensacola after Kim had joined the board in Savannah, Georgia and they had the first meeting at Dixon School for the Arts and Sciences. Over 100 people showed up and shared their desire to learn more about how finances work, transportation, jobs, and even how cryptocurrency worked.
This was the catalyst for a year-long “leadership” program to help bring parents into the education process and answer their specific desires to learn. Many businesses, like Navy Credit Union, and social services agencies that offer programs to help began showing up to work one-on-one with attendees. ”These are the people in the trenches trying to help,” says Julian.
Parent University Pensacola had its first graduating class this year complete with diplomas and one year of class credits. “It was one of the proudest moments of their life,” said Julian. “It’s now one of the strongest programs in Pensacola for the most disenfranchised groups of people in our city.”
The Dixon School for the Arts and Sciences uses its arts curriculum to expand horizons and teach through its focus on the visual arts, music, and theater. The Children’s Theater Company (CTC) of New York was recently invited to perform a New York play, Henry Box Brown, about a slave who shipped himself to freedom. They had four shows in Pensacola, and each was attended by more than 400 people.
The performance was sponsored by Equity Partners Alliance of Pensacola and a follow-up curriculum of theatrical productions was developed with children in the area who would not ordinarily have access to theater. The goal of CTC is to use theater to teach moral reasoning through theater productions.
Two other projects grabbed Julian and Kim’s attention. Each year, they attend the TED Conference in Vancouver, Canada. TED Talk participants compete for the Audacious Project Award with a significant monetary prize attached. Robin Steinberg gave a presentation called, “What if we ended the injustice of bail?” She won the Audacious Project Award and her Bail Project talk inspired Julian and Kim to bring the program to Pensacola.
“The purpose is to provide bail for those who can’t afford even the 10% cost of a bail bond and keeps them in the system,” says Julian. “Minor arrests often lead to lost jobs and being away from families because offenders can’t afford a $200 bail. It’s disruptive and unhealthy for our communities and it’s unjust. We want to identify the disparity between blacks and whites and look at the metrics that allow us to look at ourselves and find solutions to the problems.”
One Florida statute that is available to counties that caught Julian and Kim’s attention was the Children’s Trust. This is a dedicated source of revenue established by voter referendum to improve the lives of all children. Starting in Miami-Dade County, Julian served as Chairman for the Escambia County effort and garnered a majority of votes to pass a millage tax referendum establishing the Escambia County Children’s Trust. The grassroots campaign passed by a large margin and now provides over $10 million a year to support children’s services in Pensacola.
Kim and Julian love Pensacola and are committed to seeing it become a more vibrant, livable city for everyone. They don’t seek accolades but do hope their commitment to improving the lives of the underserved will attract more and more participation and understanding. “We are all products of our environments and change is hard,” says Julian.
My former boss and Dean of the University of Alabama’s business school, Dr. Barry Mason often says, “Education opens doors to opportunity.” I couldn’t agree more. A heartfelt thanks to Kim and Julian MacQueen for your dedication and commitment. I feel it every time I visit Pensacola.