By Kevin Hogencamp
Stewart Campbell was downright giddy Tuesday as he contemplated the realization of his company’s acquisition of the iconic Merry Acres Event Center complex at 1500 Dawson Road.
Campbell now owns a critical part of Albany’s past — and future.
“A lot of work has gone into getting this far and a lot more work is ahead of us, but we are very, very excited,” said Stewart, who along with his business partner Bo Henry made the historic purchase announcement Tuesday. “Like everything else we do, we are in this for the long run.”
The Dozier and Stanfill families owned the Merry Acres complex — which includes a 110-room Quality Inn Merry Acres motel, conference center, restaurant and offices – since 1953. Campbell’s and Henry’s company, Stewbo’s, is planning a $1 million renovation focused on modernization, the business partners said Tuesday.
The purchase price was not disclosed.
Stewbo’s’ varied business interests include owning three Albany restaurants: Harvest Moon, The Catch and Henry Campbell’s. Stewbo’s also has an ownership stake in Ad Seen Media and Henry is a professional musician and a partner in the State Theatre.
Henry said that Merry Acres is a good fit for the partners – who are married to sisters.
“It’s great to be a part of such a rich history. We are proud to be able to carry on the tradition of the Doziers and Stanfills – two great Albany families,” Henry said. “This place is immaculate. We are just going to try to modernize it some.”
The hotel rooms – junior executive rooms, executive rooms and presidential suites — will undergo major renovation, as will the “main house,” where the Dozier family once lived and hotel guests now register. When the dust settles, the Quality Inn will feature a boutique-style hospitality setting throughout the sprawling campus and a new upscale lounge in the main house. The hotel will not close during the renovations.
Stewbo’s will focus on catering meetings, weddings, reunions, birthday events and other parties for 10 to 500 people at Merry Acres while deciding later whether to reopen the restaurant.
“We already have restaurants,” Henry noted. “We’re covered there for now.”
With the addition of about 30 Merry Acres employees, Stewbo’s now employs about 170 people, in addition to spurring the economy with the renovation project. Merry Acres’ longtime general manager Cathy Odell and operations director Rhonda Tedder are remaining in their positions and are now part of the Stewbo’s management team.
“They were part of the deal. It was no deal unless they were part of it,” Henry said.
Stewbo’s’ other key managers, Grant Orndorff and Billy Mann, will head the Events Center’s operation by coordinating special occasions.
Following is a historical of the Merry Acres complex compiled in 1999 by the Doziers and Stanfills.
Third-Generation Continuity and Vision
“We feel like we have an extremely distinctive niche here at Merry Acres that goes well beyond just bricks and mortar,” explains Gerry Dozier Jr.
As the grandson of the owners of the original 500-acre estate from which Merry Acres evolved, Dozier has had both a front-row seat in its history as well as an active role in its success. He and his exemplary staff, many of whom have served for decades, show an unsurpassed level of commitment to the quality and standards that make Merry Acres both an esteemed destination for lodging and events as well as a repeat award-winner in its industry and its brand.
“In 1968, when we added 30 units to the original hotel, private dining rooms to the restaurant, and our real estate office to the Merry Acres Complex, I was in high school working for Dozier Construction Company. So I actually dug the footings — with a pick and shovel — and participated in the construction of those six buildings,” recalls Dozier. “That hard work not only made me want to get a college education, but it gave me a vested interest in the hotel, where I would unknowingly be employed as an adult.”
That vantage point also instilled a true in-the-trenches mentality that would later enable Dozier to manage staff in all departments of Merry Acres with an empowering, collaborative approach that motivated them to join in a vision of defying trends and giving all guests an extraordinary experience at Merry Acres.
Merry Acres and Albany, Georgia
Albany has been a commercial hub of southwest Georgia since its founding on the banks of the Flint River in 1836. As a marketing center for the region’s cotton growers in the 1860s, it was also a railroad axis that moved both cotton and later diversified crops such as peanuts and pecans to other regions and vital ports of the U.S.
The area surrounding Albany has a smattering of plantations with prime undeveloped countryside that has for years attracted throngs of hunters of wild quail, doves, upland game birds, and other forms of wildlife.
Into this backdrop, in 1935, Dr. Russell L. Grace, Sr. purchased the 500-acre estate on Dawson Road where the Merry Acres Hotel would eventually come into existence.
“My grandmother, Bessie Johnson Grace, a native Albanian, designed elaborate landscaping to complement the manor house. In fact, many of the pine trees, azaleas, and camellias she planted herself, and many still flourish throughout the complex today. They are superb reminders of her, and they greatly enhance the beauty and serenity of the site,” says Dozier
After completing her work, she was so pleased with her embellishments, that she named the home Merry Acres, an appellation which has somewhat set the tone for the property as whole.”
“In 1947, my parents, George G. “Spec” Dozier and Jean Grace Dozier, got married in a garden wedding right here at Merry Acres. My father was then in professional baseball, managing the Miami Beach Flamingos of the Florida International League. During a visit to Miami in 1951, my grandfather told my parents that he had decided to sell the Merry Acres estate, because it was too large, and the upkeep had become a burden for just him and my grandmother.”
Hotel Beginnings & Birth of a Child
The motel industry was in still its infancy in Florida, and since Jean was pregnant, Spec decided to leave professional baseball and return to Albany. A few years earlier, World War II had been a significant impact on the city since two airfields were established there to train both British and American pilots. Many of those servicemen stayed on or returned to Albany after the war ended, and additional civilians migrated there as well. Subsequently, Albany experienced its greatest population growth in the post-war 1940s and 1950s.
“Thus my parents’ decision to purchase the two-story manor house and 10 surrounding acres for a motel site came at an opportune time,” remarks Dozier. “With the help of supportive local bankers, they opened the 22-room Merry Acres Motel in July of 1953, and it became a member of Quality Courts Motels the following September at their annual convention.”
The Quality Courts Motels franchise has changed its name several times over the past 57 years, making the hotel’s current official name Quality Inn Merry Acres, and placing it in under the auspices of Choice Hotels International, a highly respected hotel franchise company, that has over 5,800 hotels throughout the U.S. and 30 foreign countries.
On July 9, 1952, Spec and Jean Dozier became the proud parents of George Gerald Dozier, Jr., who was literally born into the hotel business, and since 1985 has served as the President and General Manager of the Quality Inn Merry Acres.
Learning and Leading
“Although my father opened Merry Acres, he later got into real estate development, and brought in his brother to manage the hotel,” Dozier explains. “My overwhelming interest was in construction, and I was involved in seven or eight residential developments until my uncle died unexpectedly. So in my early thirties, I suddenly found myself operating a hotel.
“At that time, I didn’t know where to order a sheet or towel, and had to sink or swim. Fortunately, I got very involved with the International Operators Council of Choice Hotels International, who put me on the fast track, and enhanced my learning curve. And, by eventually serving on the International Operators Council Board of Directors, and their national Marketing and Operations and Standards Committees, I was able to contribute to shaping Choice’s franchised brands of hotels. These experiences gave me the vision of how we at Merry Acres could do things better, and then ultimately how we would lead our peers by example.”
“In the early days of running our hotel, someone told me that Merry Acres was too old to win hotel of the year. I took it as a personal challenge and a quest such that in 1989 — within four years — we won our first of (of many) Quality Inn of the Year Award(s).”
“Having loyal and top-notch employees has played a huge part in our success, and set us apart from our competition. Under our current management structure, Cathy Odell serves as the general manager, and under her outstanding leadership has instilled in our employees, the mindset that no matter what their job or role, they, too, had the opportunity to ‘wow’ a guest. We strived for name recognition of our guests, knowing their preferences, and just carrying on that wonderful tradition of Southern graciousness.”
Growth and Expansion
Between its 1953 opening and 1989, the Quality Inn Merry Acres underwent a major renovation and 6 expansions that increased its original 22 guest rooms to the present 110.
“Basically the major renovation in 1985, of the existing guest rooms, swimming pool, lobby, administrative offices, and conference center, gave the hotel complex a fresh new look, and in each expansion thereafter, we paid careful attention to the architectural integrity, such that both original portions and the additions blended seamlessly,” says Dozier
Quail Unlimited Nests at Merry Acres
Of all the gatherings and special events that have brought people to Merry Acres and to Albany, perhaps the most well known is the Quail Unlimited Celebrity Hunt. Quail Unlimited, a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to the wise management of America’s wild quail, upland game birds, and other wildlife, held its original 1986 Celebrity Hunt in Edgefield, South Carolina.
“Knowing that Albany has such remarkable, large plantations and hunting preserves, Rocky Evans, John Sherman, and I met in October of 1986 to discuss moving the event here,” explains Dozier.
“So in February 1987, Merry Acres hosted the 2nd annual Celebrity Hunt, with 35 guest rooms occupied by celebrities like Tennessee Ernie Ford, Ben Johnson, Roy Clark, Dub Taylor, Little Jimmy Dickens, and others, along with hunters from across the U.S.”
“The Celebrity Quail Hunt … now also fills most rooms in area hotels, making a $1.2 million annual impact on Albany’s economy, and bringing positive attention to the area and to Quail Unlimited. We’re already making plans for the January 2010 event, and are just thrilled that this signature event will be hitting its 23rd year.”
Awards & Accolades
In May of 2009, the Quality Inn Merry Acres was bestowed the 2009 Quality Inn of the Year award; this honor recognizes the one hotel, selected from among 1,260 Quality branded hotels, which best represents excellence in the Choice Hotels system and lodging industry. This marked the sixth time that the Quality Inn Merry Acres has won the Inn of the Year award, previously receiving this distinction in 1989, 1991, 1996, 2000, and 2007.
In addition to the Inn of the Year awards, the Quality Inn Merry Acres has received 16 consecutive Gold Hospitality Awards (1990-2005), as well as 4 consecutive Platinum Hospitality Awards (2006-2009), Choice Hotels’ highest and most prestigious award.
“Being in the Choice Hotels system for 57 years, and receiving their highest hospitality awards recognition, validates that the Quality Inn Merry Acres has succeeded in combining the old with the new to achieve something unique and exceptional,” explains Dozier.
The Merry Acres campus, which began in 1953 with a small 22-unit motel, now offers an unprecedented award-winning hotel with 110 guest rooms and suites as well as a high-caliber event center.
“The hospitality industry is all about serving people. Once that gets in your blood, it’s exciting to be able to create a family spirit such that guests actually feel like they are visiting a home and a close friend.”
“And it’s quite gratifying to continue the custom of gracious living for which the South and this area in Georgia is known.”
Merry Acres is a proud product of this heritage.