PANAMA CITY — Gulf Coast State College and the GCSC Foundation accepted the gift of a lifetime Thursday morning.
The college received $2.5 million, the largest single donation in its history, from Julie Hilton for hospitality and tourism-related programs.
Hilton, president of Hilton Resorts in Panama City Beach, said $1 million will be set aside for the Katherine Griffin Boatwright Endowed Faculty Chair for Hospitality & Tourism, and $1 million will go to ongoing operating expenses to enhance hospitality management and tourism-related degree and certificate programs.
The initiatives will be under the umbrella of the soon-to-be Hilton Hospitality Management & Tourism Program. GCSC also will dedicate and rename the college’s Advanced Technology Center to the Charles Hilton Center for Advanced Technology and Hospitality Management in July. The late Charles Hilton was Julie Hilton's father.
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Sean Preston, executive director of the GCSC Foundation, said officials are excited about how much the donation will fund and the wisdom Hilton will bring to the program.
“It's the fact that it's going to support hospitality and tourism management programs, it’s going to support securing the very best faculty we could find for that program, and it's also contributing to the Gulf Coast Guarantee Scholarship Fund,” Preston said. “Julie Hilton is going to be an amazing strategic partner. It's not just going to be the funds and then she just kind of goes away. Julie has shown us that she is very interested in seeing this program grow to support our No. 1 industry, which is hospitality and tourism.”
That industry is vital to the county's economy, Hilton said.
"It seems we need a premier hospitality management and tourism college program to build on our economy, make it stronger and benefit our citizens," Hilton told The News Herald. "In the past, a lot of the hospitality businesses over the years were developed by visitors rather than natives of our area. And to me, it seems that it would be great for Bay County, for our local citizens, to benefit more. Education is the start and education can help us reach new heights."
For 55 years, Hilton and her family have been involved in developing, owning and managing hotels, golf courses and other real estate projects in and around Panama City Beach. She said it was her grandmother's dream that kickstarted her family's business and her dedication to the industry.
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"My family's philosophy has always been to create jobs that improve our quality of life," Hilton said. "I feel very privileged to support and build an outstanding college program to honor my dad and my family for their contributions to the community."
Hilton, who previously has donated to the college, worked closely with GCSC officials for months to develop a high-level partnership to oversee the development and growth of hospitality management and tourism-related training programs.
Hilton said she has a clear vision of “what can and should be accomplished for this region,” and how her gift can help achieve that.
"My thought was that it's also very challenging for businesses today to do the kind of education and training of workers who don't have any background in hospitality and tourism," Hilton said. "And so, I see (GCSC) being able to not only provide hospitality managers but also provide certificate programs for various components of hospitality so that this can raise the bar for all of the industry so that workers will be more productive. And we'll all benefit from that."
Preston said working with Hilton on the programs has been a joy and college officials are excited for her to see the progress.
“We found that we had very similar thoughts around hospitality and tourism and culinary,” Preston said. “I really am enamored with our beaches. I'm enamored with what we can offer families coming to visit and Julie's whole family history is surrounded by hotels and tourism. So, we just really vectored and met at the point of knowing how important hospitality is.”
Preston said the faculty and students in the hospitality and tourism-related program are ecstatic.
"They were just really excited that we have such a wonderful benefactor,” Preston said. “And so, the ATC building will now be dedicated ... In that building, it will be the headquarters for hospitality and culinary.”
Seeing her father honored means a lot to Hilton, she said. For 25 years, she watched him develop much of Bay County, so she's excited to see the next generation remember him as the innovator he was.
"A lot of what my dad and my family did was behind the scenes, and a lot of people don't know about it, and I think it's helpful for us in this community to know our history and know the pioneers who helped lay the foundation for us to be a success," Hilton said. "It's a real honor for me to share that with the community and honor my dad and family for their special contributions."
For Hilton and Preston, they believe this is the future of hospitality and tourism in Bay County.
“The future is the brightest it has ever been. And that's saying a lot. Our tourism, hospitality management has been wonderful along the way, or else no one would be coming to our beaches,” Preston said. “With Julie's gift and the enhanced program and the endowed faculty chair and the scholarship to help kids come here, we've created sort of a no-lose situation.”
This article originally appeared on The News Herald: Gulf Coast State College in Panama City receives record $2.5M donation