‘Live-learn-play’ project planned in Gwinnett

A Gwinnett County site once proposed for Georgia’s first gambling complex could instead become the home of something very different: an education project aimed at training the region’s next wave of entrepreneurs.

Developers envision a $200 million “live-learn-play” project off I-85 that would combine an MBA school with housing, a sports complex, a film studio, office and retail space and a hotel. It would be one of the biggest mixed-use projects in recent years in metro Atlanta.

Pushing the idea is Cliff Oxford, a millionaire businessman and former U.S. Senate candidate who has long been involved in business education. The planned curriculum is modeled on medical school residency, with the emphasis on entrepreneurial skills gained through hands-on experience in work settings and with emerging companies, Oxford told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“I call it a revolution in business education,” said Oxford. “And the revolution is really teaching students business. I’ve invested in education and I love education, but academia isn’t going to change the world of entrepreneurship. You need totally fresh thinking.”

Oxford is teaming with Jim Jacoby, the developer behind Midtown mixed-use mecca Atlantic Station. The two are scheduled to unveil the project Tuesday.

The non-profit Gwinnett school, which would be called the Oxford Center University at Brenau, would operate under the umbrella of Brenau University, a private university in Gainesville. It would have to secure accreditation but as a private school would not need Board of Regents’ approval.

While the campus would be run as a nonprofit institution, other parts of the development - such as the hotel and office space - could be moneymakers for the developers.

Oxford and Jacoby say they have a contract on the land and a financing agreement with a Chinese partner, though they wouldn’t disclose details.

Metro Atlanta already has a range of MBA options, from large-scale programs like those at Emory, Georgia State or Kennesaw State to small for-profit schools. But some critics say traditional programs are too theoretical and fail to provide updated, hands-on experience. That view gained momentum during the recession.

In response many top business schools – including the Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania and the Yale School of Management – have revamped their programs.

The usual admissions yardsticks - transcripts and test scores - would be secondary at the new Gwinnett school, Oxford said. Prospective students would take online “entrepreneurial assessments” to determine agility and creativity.

“We’re going to create the job creators. It’s not a school that helps people work for a big bank, or work for somebody else,” said Oxford, who pledged $5 million to endow Emory University’s executive MBA program.

Entrepreneurship is a broad and fluid field, meaning coursework and focus varies among programs.

Tracey Briggs, spokeswoman for the Graduate Management Admission Council, which supplies programs uses to determine graduate business school admission, said she is intrigued by Oxford’s program but wants to know specifics.

“There has been a lot of energy in business schools toward entrepreneurship,” Briggs said. “This has been building for quite a while.”

The site just outside the Perimeter is now home to a complex used by fiber optics company OFS. It would still operate there. Dan O’Leary, who operates Underground Atlanta, had a contract on the land for the last 18 months as a potential site for a $1 billion gambling complex. He dumped the contract late last year when it became clear state officials wouldn’t approve his idea. That left an opening for Oxford and Jacoby.

Brenau’s business school dean, Bill Lightfoot, said the 2,700-student college wanted to work with Oxford partly because of the entrepreneurial program he runs in Midtown, Lightfoot said. The for-profit program, called the Oxford Center, arranges apprenticeships and online courses for budding entreprenuers.

Oxford’s program with Brenau would teach a five-course concentration and offer apprenticeships, Lightfoot said. He estimated 20 would enroll at first.

“A college of business should be about entrepreneurship,” Lightfoot said. “We wanted to focus on this area and do it in a way that is itself entrepreneurial.”

The school, which could accept its first students as soon as 2014, also would seek to partner with MBA programs at other universities to offer workshops and apprenticeships.

The program focus would be divided into thirds: an internship with a local company, online courses, and in-depth workshops.

Students could enroll through partner universities or through “earn it for free” courses where they pay tuition by working apprenticeship programs with companies that pay the school.

The center also plans to charge $100,000 annual tuition for a small class that would have access to top-flight executives who could work with them on business plans. And partner universities would pay the Oxford Center to run workshops and other courses.

Surrounding developments could include a film school and film studio, offices for emerging companies, student housing and the hotel. A recording studio and school are also on the drawing board. Oxford and Jacoby said the campus could eventually be home to about 2,000 students.

The partners said the school could be especially attractive to foreign students. Nearly 765,000 international students attended a U.S. college last year and business is the most popular major, according to the Institute of International Education.

In time, the complex could be looked at as a new system of education appealing to creative entrepreneurs, Oxford and Jacoby said.

“Steve Jobs or Bill Gates would want to stay in this school,” Oxford said of the two billionaire college dropouts. “That kind of student doesn’t have a home today.”

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.