Patience, dedication and a significantly reduced funding request paid dividends as the University of South Florida St. Petersburg will soon house an expansive interdisciplinary science research and teaching facility.
Governor Ron DeSantis signed a record $116.5 billion budget into law Thursday afternoon, including $111.1 million dedicated to USF. Its most significant capital project allocation to escape the veto pen was $24.3 million for an Environmental and Oceanographic Sciences Research and Teaching Facility (EOS) on the St. Pete campus.
USF officials and stakeholders awaited the governor’s signature with bated breath for six weeks. The Legislature earmarked $75 million for the project in May 2022, only for DeSantis to strike it from the budget a month later.
Undeterred, school officials and supporters continued their dogged pursuit of the “transformative” project. As Regional Chancellor Christian Hardigree noted in a statement to the Catalyst, “The timing couldn’t be better.”
“Building on the momentum from being invited to the AAU(Association of American Universities), this center will spur cutting-edge research and enhance our reputation as a global hub for marine science,” Hardigree said. “We are so grateful for the support of this new facility, which will draw students and faculty from around the world who are driven to find solutions to the existential challenges posed by sea level rise.
“Thank you to Governor DeSantis, Senate President (Kathleen) Passidomo, House Speaker (Paul) Renner and the entire Tampa Bay area legislative delegation for their advocacy and support of this project.”
The $24.3 million will fund the EOS’ initial planning and construction phase. USF President Rhea Law first publicly announced the ambitious project in Nov. 2021.
To put the precarious nature of appropriated state funding in perspective, the governor vetoed $20 million Thursday to help build an Academic Nursing STEM facility on the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus. That project received $3 million in last year’s budget.
Law made good on her pledge to ensure the EOS would eventually rise from the shores of Bayboro Harbor. At a June 2022 Board of Trustees meeting following the veto, Law said, “We’re going back, and we’re going back strong.”
During a St. Petersburg campus event in January, she urged local stakeholders not to think “for one moment” that school leadership had paused their pursuit of EOS funding. In an email to the USF community following the latest appropriation in May, Law wrote, “This facility will further position St. Petersburg as a world-class center of marine and environmental science, education and community engagement.”
“I jumped up and cheered when I got the news!” said Councilmember Gina Driscoll. “This is a big win for the USF College of Marine Science and for the City of St. Petersburg as we continue to build on our reputation as a leader in the new blue economy.”
The blue economy includes tourism and recreation, shipping and transportation, commercial and recreational fishing, power generation, research and related goods and services. The new blue economy – St. Petersburg Innovation District focus – builds on the previous version by harnessing the power of data analytics.
The EOS will eventually house the Florida Flood Hub. It will also join Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency’s regional office, the Maritime Defense and Technology Hub and U.S. Geological Survey’s Coastal and Marine Science Center in the one-square-mile Innovation District.
“This takes USFSP to a new level by providing a state-of-the-art research and instructional space in the heart of St. Petersburg,” said Councilmember Ed Montanari. “I am thrilled that USFSP has received this funding … this has been a priority for years.”
Alison Barlow, executive director of the Innovation District and Hub, is integral to the area and university’s new blue economy efforts. Her overarching goal is fostering collaboration, and she expressed excitement about how the EOS will propel those efforts.
“I think it will continue to demonstrate the thought leadership and depth of research and other activities that have been going on in the marine science community,” Barlow said. “What I love about it is the cross-disciplinary aspects, where they will have the opportunity to blend different focus areas in conversation and then work together.
“We have always seen that the more we have going on, the more we’re able to attract.”
She elaborated that cutting-edge programming would attract leading researchers, appealing to the brightest students. Companies would then gravitate toward that elite talent pool, Barlow added.
“It’s a ripple effect that occurs,” she said. “With a focus on one of our target industries, one of our core industries that makes St. Pete distinctive.”