South Beloit, Ill., hotel could be come dorm for Chinese students

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Frank Schultz
Thursday, November 21, 2013

SOUTH BELOIT, ILL.—A hotel that Chinese investors recently bought in South Beloit, Ill., could become a dormitory for students attending school in Rock County.

A Chicago doctor of Chinese origin and a wealthy Chinese businessman are said to be involved in the project. They have approached UW-Rock County in Janesville and Rock County Christian School in Beloit about supplying them with students.

One wing of the former Holiday Inn in South Beloit would be dedicated to housing students from China, while the rest of the hotel would operate as a traditional hotel, city of South Beloit officials said.

The investors have talked about opening the hotel around Christmastime, said Alice Schoonoover, a South Beloit City Council member.

UW-Rock County Dean Carmen Wilson said she has met with representatives of the project, and UW-Rock has agreed to issue the required visas and educate the Chinese students if they meet educational requirements.

“We are always eager to increase our international student population,” Wilson said.

The developers initially suggested 20 students for UW-Rock, Wilson said, and she suggested five, until the college could ramp up support services and grow the program.

The Gazette was not able to reach Dr. Zhan Zhanhai, also known as Michael Zhang, on Thursday, but Tim Urbonya of the UW Colleges said he has talked to him and to his partner in China, Wang Zhibin.

Urbonya, who lived 12 years in China, met Wang in one of his frequent trips there. Wang is in the hotel and insurance businesses, but recruiting students to study in the United States is new for him.

“He's an impressive guy. He's very, very successful but a very humble guy,” Urbonya said. “He seemed earnest and sincere and wanting to do things the right way and wanting to make sure it's done according to all the legal ways in America,” Urbonya said.

Urbonya said Wang approached him about a hotel he was buying, and Urbonya, who grew up in Beloit, was more than surprised to find out where it was.

“He bought it at a fire-sale price,” Urbonya said.

The idea is to provide a safe, nurturing environment for the students, including English tutoring, Urbonya said.

The students would be transported by bus or van each day, Urbonya said. An online mapping service shows the drive is about 19 minutes from the hotel to UW-Rock, a distance of 15.7 miles.

This is Wang's first venture into international education, but he has hired staff to recruit students and is following Urbonya's advice about the rules for such a venture, Urbonya said.

While the developers talked of placing students as soon as next semester, Urbonya said he does not know whether it will happen that soon.

“They certainly are very, very earnest and are giving every effort to do it and do it in the right way.” Urbonya said. “… It's a competitive business, so if they're able to get students or not, time will tell.”

Chinese students are the largest contingent of foreign students in United States colleges, and their numbers are growing.

Businesses that recruit and help Chinese students make the transition are cropping up all over the country, Urbonya said.

South Beloit Mayor Michael Duffy seemed impressed at the size of the investment in remodeling the hotel, which has been vacant for several years.

The Holiday Inn opened in 1964 and closed in 2007, according to the Beloit Daily News. It later operated as a Ramada Inn, closing in 2009. It featured 161 rooms, a swimming pool, restaurant, and banquet area. The new developers have proposed calling it New Chapter Hotel.

The original thinking was to start with about 20 Chinese students of college age and high school juniors and seniors housed in a blocked-off wing, Duffy said.

The college students would stay throughout their college years, moving from UW-Rock to a four-year UW university, Duffy said.

The high school students would attend Rock County Christian School in Beloit, Duffy said.

Rock County Christian Administrator Tim Befus said he was contacted last spring but has not heard from the developers in recent months and is not sure whether students would be coming.

Befus said the school is willing to take the students and already accepts international students, including three from China this year. Students live with host families.

Zhang has talked about setting up offices for his acupuncture/fertility clinic, Duffy said.

A website for Zhang's Chicago clinic advertises “traditional Chinese medicine,” herbology and acupuncture and states that he and his partner, his wife, Licai Yang, are also M.D.s.

Duffy said the developers talked about students starting school in January.

The Janesville School District, which has been developing a program that would eventually bring foreign students from China and elsewhere to Craig and Parker high schools, is aware of the development. District officials have reached out but has not talked to the developers, Superintendent Karen Schulte said.

“We just put out the word that, 'Hey we're Janesville, and we're here, too,'” Schulte said.

Duffy said he put the developers in touch with a major employer, Taylor Freezer of nearby Rockton, Ill., and it looks as though they will be doing business together, as Taylor is expanding in China.

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