On Feb. 8, University of South Florida President Rhea Law told Pinellas County Commissioners the Florida House included $60 million in the state budget for the Environmental & Oceanographic Sciences Research facility – but that it was subject to change.
In a Thursday evening email, she announced the number did change – for the better.
The Florida legislature has included $75 million in a record-breaking $112 billion state budget to fully fund its share of the construction costs for the USF Interdisciplinary Center of Excellence in Environmental and Oceanographic Science (EOS). Law and USF St. Petersburg Regional Chancellor Martin Tadlock have repeatedly called the EOS a “game-changer” when describing the facility’s potential to local officials and community stakeholders.
“It’s going to impact not only St. Petersburg but Pinellas County, the Tampa Bay region, and coastal communities throughout Florida and the world,” said Tadlock at the commission meeting.
Since announcing plans for the project last fall, Law has made several trips across Tampa Bay to rally community support and funding for the project. The university expects the EOS to cost just over $80 million, and the Florida Board of Governors previously recommended $20 million come from the university.
In November, Law told St. Petersburg City Council she asked the legislature for $30 million this year and $30 million in 2023 to construct the EOS. It is unclear how the increase in state money impacts USF’s private fundraising efforts or the project’s timeline.
What is clear is the excitement surrounding the transformational project.
“This investment will position St. Petersburg as a world-class center of marine and environmental science, education and community engagement, and elevate USF’s stature as a Preeminent State Research University,” said Law in the email.
Dr. Tom Frazier, Dean of the USF College of Marine Science, led a tour of the proposed site in December. The university plans to demolish a large portion of the waterfront Marine Science Labs (MSL) on the St. Petersburg campus while creating 40,000 new square feet and repurposing the remaining space.
Frazier explained the 80-year old MSL building was part of the city’s original Navy Maritime Training Center. Built to assist the war effort during World War II, the building shows its age. Law, a USF alumna, often states how it was long past its prime when she attended the university.
“We came to talk about a building,” said Frazier. “But the building is part of a larger vision of what we have for the St. Petersburg campus and the community.”
The EOS will attract students interested in solving the world’s problems, said Law, and the center would bring new bachelor, master and post-doctorate degrees to USFSP. She said the facility would also attract faculty at the top of their professions that are equally adept at researching and teaching. She envisions the EOS as a national destination for students and faculty alike.
“It’s putting us on the map,” Law told the commissioners. “Right here in St. Petersburg, this focal point.”
The EOS will also boast several influential neighbors that provide unmatched opportunities for collaboration. The St. Petersburg Innovation District, which USFSP and Frazer are a part of, formally unveiled its Defense and Maritime Technology Hub (The Hub) on March 2.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Regional Office, a Coast Guard station and the U.S. Geological Survey’s Coastal and Marine Science Center are all just a short walk away. The Florida Flood Hub, which coordinates statewide efforts between academia and researchers to address flooding and sea-level rise, is currently a tenant of the Hub but will move its offices to the EOS upon its completion.
“I don’t think there’s a better place in the southeastern United States, and arguably the nation, to carry out this work,” said Frazer. “We’re right on the coast, and we see the effects every day.”
In a statement following news of the state funding, Jason Mathis, CEO of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, also called the EOS a “game-changer” for USF – and the entire Innovation District. He said the facility would impact industries often overlooked when discussing its potential applications.
“Research from this facility will help shape the insurance industry, environmental engineering, zoning and real estate development decisions,” he explained. “It will make our cities more resilient and connect the many different marine science elements that are already part of this campus.”
Both the House and the Senate came to a consensus on the budget over the last week, and Law gave special thanks to USF alum and Speaker of the House Chris Sprowls for his continued support of the EOS and university. The legislature will hold a formal vote on the budget Monday, and Law expects it to pass.
Following Monday’s approval, the legislature will send the budget to Gov. Ron DeSantis for review. St. Petersburg’s elected officials look forward to seeing the expansive project come to fruition.
“The St. Petersburg community stands ready to do our part,” said City Council Chair Gina Driscoll in a statement. “To make the USF Center of Excellence in Oceanographic Sciences, supported by the Florida Legislature, a reality.”