Casa Confidential

A renovated house in Merida, Mexico, becomes a cornerstone of international studies programs for Millsaps College.

The first rule of real estate is “location, location, location.” And what’s true for real estate is also true for global business programs, especially when it comes to establishing a center for study in a foreign market.

Location was top of mind for administrators at the Else School of Management at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, when they purchased and renovated a single-story residential home in Merida, Mexico, in early 2006. Merida, the capital city of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, has a population of just over 970,000 and sits 35 miles from the southern coastline of the Gulf of Mexico. The school transformed the structure into its Center for Business and Culture—otherwise known as “Casa Millsaps.”

With destinations such as Europe, Asia, and the Middle East so popular among business students, the Yucatán might not be the first choice for schools that want to establish a facility in another country. But for the Else School, Casa Millsaps in Merida has proven to be not just an affordable investment, but a source of enriching educational experiences for students and faculty across the entire college.

A DIFFERENT DIRECTION

About ten years ago, Else administrators realized that the school’s global study programs were becoming increasingly popular. They began to set aside funds to purchase property overseas so that they could offer global experiences to students more affordably and conveniently. “We thought it would be smarter to invest in a property, rather than hotel rooms,” says Harvey Fiser, associate professor of business law. They wanted to purchase a building that could provide both living accommodations and classrooms, as well as offer the potential to generate revenue in the future.

But when administrators looked into purchasing property in Europe, where Else faculty have been taking students for more than 20 years, the cost turned out to be too great. “We were simply priced out of that market,” Fiser says.

With Europe off the table, the school turned its attention to Mexico. Else’s global study programs in the Yucatán were much younger than its programs in Europe—in place only since 2002—but the destination’s popularity among students had been steadily growing. Even better, the cost of real estate in the Yucatán was well within the school’s budget. Faculty spent several months exploring Merida, to decide whether to choose a site in the suburbs or in the city’s center. In the end, they purchased a home in the city’s center, where students would be close to local amenities and bus routes.

The property sits on a cul-desac, near a judicial office building, two small commercial facilities, and several single-family homes. After ten months of renovations, Else opened Casa Millsaps to students and faculty in December 2006.

Since then, the school has added a second story to the structure and part of a third. Casa Millsaps now has nine bedrooms, nine and a half bathrooms, a small swimming pool, and a third-floor terrace. The air-conditioned facility also features a dining hall that seats 25, a conference room/classroom that seats 20, wireless access, and a flat screen television.

Building within Merida’s zoning codes turned out to be much simpler than it would have been in a European city, says Fiser. Under Merida codes, the school had no trouble establishing an educational center in a mixed-use neighborhood.

Another advantage of the location is the “unparalleled safety” of the region, says Fiser. The crime rate in the Yucatan is lower than it is in the rest of Mexico; in fact, Fiser notes that crime rates compare to those in Wyoming or Montana. That information tends to ease the concerns of worried parents, he adds.

FOR MORE THAN BUSINESS

The center now achieves Else administrators’ original goal: to simplify Else’s study programs in the region. During winter and summer breaks, for example, Fiser travels to the Yucatán with undergraduate business students who take global business courses that range from international business law to marketing and management. Students can see the impact of international trade firsthand through their visits to the large number of farms and factories in the area.

During the summer, the Else School also uses the center as part of its International Cultural Awareness Program (ICAP) for high school seniors from across the U.S. In ICAP, students visit Millsaps College for five days, where faculty introduce them to the international aspects of disciplines such as economics, accounting, anthropology, archeology, and geology.

Then, ICAP students travel to the Yucatán for a week to put what they have just learned into action. They visit factories, farms, and archeological sites. One highlight of their trip is a visit to Kaxil Kiuik (pronounced ka-sheel kee-week), a 4,500-acre biocultural reserve. Supported by Millsaps College, Kaxil Kiuik is located in a dry tropical rainforest, where there is little to no rainfall for six months each year. At the reserve, students observe archeological excavations, learn about local plant and animal species that can survive the dry season, and spend the night in hammocks in the middle of the rainforest.

But Casa Millsaps also serves Millsaps College as a whole. For instance, the school hosts alumni events at the center. Last spring, the college launched a semesterlong program in the Yucatán for arts and sciences students, who travel to the facility to study Spanish, as well as Mexico’s history, art, and culture.

In addition, the Else School leases the facility to other universities for educational programs, to corporations for business retreats, and even to families for vacations. Every year, the center is the location for continuing education activities for lawyers and accountants. A Midwestern university recently leased the space for 22 of its physical therapy students, who used the center as their home base as they conducted outreach programs to the local population. A southern university sent its biology students there for the opportunity to study the jungle in the region.

“The Yucatán is a rich area for archeology and anthropology” as well as business, says Fiser. “That makes the house the perfect home base for biology students who want to study different plant and animal species or archeology students who want to visit Mayan ruins. It doesn’t rain for six months in that area, so it’s an interesting place to study for those interested in conserving water resources.”

RETURN ON INVESTMENT

The time and money the school has spent on the facility have more than paid off. The Else School originally paid US$90,000 for the property and $135,000 more for renovations, placing its total investment in the property at around $225,000. Over the last five years, the facility has become self-sustaining through student tuition, corporate leasing fees, and rising property values, Fiser says. The school’s next goal is for Casa Millsaps to generate enough revenue to support student scholarships and faculty development.

Establishing a cultural center in the heart of Merida, where students are exposed to a wide range of enriching educational experiences, turned out to be the perfect global strategy for the Else School. It could be a model for other business schools with limited budgets, says Fiser. “Students think that Europe is so fun and sexy,” he adds. “But even those who’ve been to Europe come back from our center in Mexico and tell the other students, ‘You’ve got to go to the Yucatán.’”