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House recommends $60 million for USF Oceanographic Center; leadership seeks community help with balance

Mark Parker

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USF President Rhea Law (left) and Regional Chancellor Martin Tadlock announced the Florida House included $60 million in state funding for its Interdisciplinary Center of Excellence and Environmental and Oceanographic Science (EOS) in its latest budget proposal. Screengrab.

University of South Florida leadership led a presentation for the Pinellas Board of County Commissioners Tuesday morning, announcing the Florida House has included $60 million of state funding in its latest budget proposal and asking for partnerships to help with the remaining balance for the university’s “game-changer.”

The House must still vote on the budget, and if approved, it will then go to the Senate before the governor’s desk for final approval.

Regional Chancellor Martin Tadlock began the presentation by excitedly explaining recent successes on the St. Petersburg campus stemming from the university completing the consolidation process. He also thanked County Administrator Barry Burton for sending a letter to House Speaker Chris Sprowls supporting funding the Interdisciplinary Center of Excellence and Environmental and Oceanographic Science (EOS).

Last month, Tadlock and USF President Rhea Law led a large cohort of students to Tallahassee for the opening of the 2022 state legislative session. While students received a first-hand look at the legislative process, the two university leaders were hard at work advocating for state funding for the $80 million EOS.

“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 before handing the presentation over to Law.

Law began her speech by reiterating Tadlock’s claim that the EOS is a “game-changer” for both the university system and the region. If the commissioners wondered why she is visiting the other side of the bay so frequently lately, she explained it was due to the projects and opportunities emanating from the St. Pete campus.

Law said the EOS is the university’s opportunity to be first in the nation for its work in environmental and oceanographic sciences, and known throughout the world for solving problems related to those areas of study.

“We have the opportunity to do that, and we have the opportunity to do that this year,” Law stated.

Law said that across the university system, USF’s foremost priority for this year’s public education capital outlay projects (PECO) funds is for that one proposal on the St. Pete campus.

She said the facility’s purpose is to attract new students interested in solving the world’s problems and attract faculty at the top of their professions that are equally adept at researching as they are teaching. The center will bring new bachelor, master, and post-doctorate degrees to the campus, and Law envisions it as a national destination for students and faculty alike.

“It is putting us on the map,” added Law. “Right here in St. Petersburg, this focal point.”

A rendering of the $80 million EOS. Law and Tadlock asked the board of commissioners for its help securing the remaining $20 million in funding.

Law explained that the interdisciplinary facility would also incorporate the colleges of arts and engineering, in addition to marine science classrooms and labs. The EOS will also house the Florida Flood Hub, for which Sprowls spearheaded funding last year.

While the current legislative session is ongoing, and much could change before the state budget is finalized, Law said she was pleased to announce that the House included $60 million for the project in the latest budget proposal.

“We can do this,” she said. “All we need to do now is come up with the additional twenty million dollars.”

University leadership is now campaigning across the region to secure the balance for the EOS through community partnerships. Law said she hopes the commission will assist in the fundraising efforts and called the EOS “the economic development play for Pinellas County.”

Commissioner Karen Seel asked if the EOS would have conference space. She pointed out that the county could use tourist development taxes for funding if USF dedicated enough space to hosting conferences. While the EOS will feature conference rooms, there are no plans for an entire conference facility. “I think we could work something out,” replied Law to a chorus of laughter.

Law did not provide the board with an asking price but said she realizes that economic development is an integral part of local government’s initiatives. She said her plea to the commissioners Tuesday was that if they could be as generous as possible, the university would multiply their return on investment “several times over.”

Commissioner Patricia Gerard wondered if the county could use economic development funds to aid the university, and the legal department said they could explore that option. Commissioner Kathleen Peters said she is thrilled to see the effort put into the St. Pete campus, and she fully supports the project. However, she noted that if the state funds 80% of a project through tax dollars, the legislature typically expects private entities to fund the remaining 20%.

“That would be one thing we have to clarify before moving forward …,” said Peters. “And I think our economic development team could lead you to other partners – and that may be the best resource we can give you.

“Lead you to some other partners that we are working with that would absolutely want to invest and join in on this endeavor.”

While the commission did not hold a vote on potential funding for the EOS, Commission Chair Charlie Justice closed the presentation by stating the board looks forward to partnering with USF.

 

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