After years of financing, planning and construction, one of Washington's largest black-run businesses, the Harambee House Hotel, is finally open and doing a brisk business.
The hotel, at Georgia Avenue and Bryant Street NW, is the creation of Ed Murphy, a 47-year-old black businessman who has worked nearly a decade to get the hotel finacned and constructed. Thursday, Murphy will unveil one of the last furnishings to be added to the hotel - a nine-foot statue for the lobby.
The hotel has been operating since March 7, and "business is fine," Murphy said, "even more than I expected. We're already over our projections."
Ten years ago, Murphy had the idea to build a hotel to fill a need. "I get turned on by filling needs," he said. He saw a need for more jobs in the black community along Georgia Avenue and a need for black hospitality.
"As far as black hospitality in this country goes, it's is a shame," Murphy said. "It's disgraceful." Murphy wanted to build a hotel, he said, not to make money, but to provide friendly, personal service.
Today, the Harambee House stands nine stories tall out on Georgia Avenue just beyond Florida Avenue NW. On one side of the hotel in Howard University and on the other is the university's hospital: but across the street lies a junkyard with rundown stores to either side.
Some people see the hotel's location as a major drawback, but Murphy thinks the hotel will spur improvements in the neighborhood. He expects other businesses, especially restaurants, to move into the area, pointing to an office building being constructed nearby.
"When you get inside, you forget about the outside," said the hotel's manager, Jake Conner. The interior is tastefully decorated, using Murphy's choice of earth tones, with African art and many plants.
Conner, who has managed many other hotels, said the Harambee House, in starting up, has done "exceptionally well. I think a year from now it'll be doing all the business it can." He said the hotel filled 75 percent of its rooms during one week in June compared to a yearly average of 67 percent for hotels nationwide and 90 percent for hotels in the District.
Although the hotel leans towards black employes and customers. Murphy points out that it is not exclusively for blacks. He compares it to a Chinese restaurant, serving all types of people Conner said about 30 percent of the hotel's customers are white.
Conner said the hotel's 160 rooms are priced just below those in comparable Washington hotels. He said the Harambee is now getting customers coming from area hotels that are filled.
One of the Harambee House's main attractions is its excellent health facilities. On the fourth floor are a swimming pool, sauna, whirlpool and exercise equipment.
On the first and second floors are meeting rooms, a dining room, two cocktail lounges and a supper club. The hotel is on the site of Ed Murphy's Supper Club, which operated from 1966 to 1972. Murphy plans to use the hotel's supper club to bring in famous black entertainers, as well as young entertainers just beginning their careers.
Murphy has hired Innkeepers, a hotel managing firm, to manage and run the Harambee House. Innkeepers works with Murphy's daughter, who is the personnel manager, in hiring the employes. Murphy said the hotel has about 200 employes, most of whom are black. Except for Conner, all the employees are local residents.
Murphy said he hired Innkeepers because hotel operations are too complicated for inexperienced people. Murphy hopes to dismiss Innkeepers in two years after his employes have been thoroughly trained.
Murphy said his main task is to set the tone for the hotel's operations. "I come alive by creating, not by day-to-day management," he said. "Hotels have personalities, like people. I'm trying to create mine.
"I think we'll have something new in the hospitality field," he continued. Repeating his theme of being in the business to provide service, not to make money, Murphy said he hopes his hotel will provide a warm atmosphere and that his employes will take pride in working there.
The Harambee House should help to spur other minority businesses in the District, said William Jameson, president of ther Greater Washington Business Center, which provides assistance to minority businesses. He expects the Harambee House to have "a positive impact on employment and the city" beyond its immediate neighborhood, creating more opportunities for tourism-related businesses.
Murpby has gone from running a supper club to running a hotel, but he is not impressed by his advancement. "Life," he said, "is a game of obstacles. I have no fear of obstacles." He had many to overcome to bring his dream of a hotel to reality.
In 1969, Murphy formed the Murphy's Hotel Corp. and began seeking financing. He went to the Commerce Department's Economic Development Administration, but the EDA could not enter into a lending contract with an individual.
Murphy then approached the People's Involvement Corp. (PIC), a federally funded antipoverty agency. PIC eventually obtained nearly $7.2 million from the EDA, half as a loan, half as a grant. With that money, PIC financed construction of the hotel and now owns it and has leased it to Murphy's corporation for 40 years.
Murphy obtained another $1 million in loans from the government for working capital and for the hotel's furnishings. A PIC subsidiary corporation also invested $60,000 into one-fourth of Murphy's Hotel Corp.
In June 1971, federal approval of the hotel's financing was announced at a press conference by former Commerce Secrtary Maurice Stans. In September 1972, Murphy closed his supper club to make way for construction of the hotel.
Construction was delayed, however, and Murphy had no income. For a while, he collected unemployment compensation.
July 1974, Murphy had reopened his supper club across Georgia Avenue from the old site. In July 1975, construction of the hotel began, scheduled for completion in early 1977. But various problems with contractors held up the construction into 1978.
With the construction of the Harambee behind him, Murphy said he is planning to go to other cities to try to start other black-run hotels. "I'm not crusading. Other groups would have to be interested," he said. He is in "heavy negotiations" in Atlantic City, he said.