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USF St. Pete’s science facility went unfunded; what’s next?

Mark Parker



An artist's illustration of the much-anticipated Environmental and Oceanographic research and teaching facility at USF St. Petersburg campus. Image: USF.

For the second time in three years, the University of South Florida did not receive state funding for an $80 million Environmental and Oceanographic Sciences (EOS) research and teaching facility.

USF officials requested $35.9 million in the recently concluded legislative session for the expansive project on the St. Petersburg campus. Sen. Nick DiCeglie and Rep. Linda Chaney sponsored the appropriation.

The State House and Senate recommended allocating $17.96 million and $15 million, respectively, to the much-anticipated project. Those amounts dwindled to zero during the committee process.

“It was a difficult year for many member projects, and I’m disappointed we couldn’t make it happen,” DiCeglie told the Catalyst. “There were hundreds of projects that did not get funded this year.”

The College of Marine Science as seen from the Maritime and Defense Technology Hub. The latter facility houses the Florida Flood Hub while USF officials work to secure EOS funding. Photo by Mark Parker.

USF President Rhea Law has touted the oceanographic science center’s benefits since she held the interim title. In November 2021, she told city council members that the EOS would become a “source of enormous pride” and make “national and international waves.”

It has yet to create a ripple.

Lawmakers dedicated $75 million to the project in May 2022 – more than double the university’s request. Governor Ron DeSantis vetoed the funding a month later.

In January 2023, Law urged St. Petersburg stakeholders not to think “for one moment” that school leadership paused their pursuit of project funding. That persistence paid dividends as the 2023 state budget, signed in June, included $24.3 million for the EOS.

The funding supports the transformative project’s initial planning and construction phase. However, school officials have only provided one update since receiving the money.

In addition, most details remain unclear, and construction costs have soared. USFSP Spokesperson Carrie O’Brion recently expressed gratitude for the state’s other “significant” investments in the university.

“We recognize the Legislature has difficult decisions to make when finalizing a budget each year,” she said in a prepared statement. “We will continue to work with them in the future to secure funding that will make a positive impact for USF, the Tampa Bay region and our state.”

In October 2023, school officials said they would stick to an $80 million budget. However, the project scope is evolving due to increasing costs.

A graphic showing the $80 million project’s initial site plan. Many aspects, including the parking configuration, could change. Screengrab.

The interdisciplinary center will still bring new degree programs to the St. Petersburg campus and promote the local blue economy. It will also house the Florida Flood Hub, temporarily headquartered at the Maritime and Defense Technology Hub.

“USFSP is doing phenomenal work in the marine science field, and I am excited for what the future holds,” DiCeglie said. “Persistence is key in the Florida Legislature, and I will always be committed to helping USFSP carry out its vision.”

That vision could now include more shared facilities and less office space. School officials are also deferring much-needed maintenance of the Marine Science Laboratories (MSL) to accommodate the project.

Built during World War II as part of the U.S. Navy Maritime Training Center, the College of Marine Science’s MSL building desperately needs capital improvements. Previous repair estimates topped $9 million.

The EOS project includes 40,000 new square feet of space and a massive remodeling effort. Instead of sinking “good money after bad,” USF has waited for state funding.

DiCeglie is not the only local lawmaker who remains undeterred by unsuccessful appropriations. Sen. Darryl Rouson said he would seek an explanation from legislative leadership, “and sometimes it takes a couple of tries to get projects funded.”

“So, I’m not dismayed,” Rouson added. “I’m encouraged that at least it made it to a certain level in the process.”

Built during WWII for the United States Navy, the Marine Science Laboratories also await significant repairs. Photo by Mark Parker.

Rep. Lindsay Cross, an environmental scientist, called it “extremely disappointing” that lawmakers did not include the project’s recommended appropriation in the 2024 budget. She is also unsure why the EOS has struggled to secure legislative funding.

“This will be a transformative research and teaching facility that positions the Tampa Bay region as a national and international leader in marine science and technology,” Cross said. “I will do whatever I can to garner support in next year’s budget because I believe it’s a wise investment from our state.”

The budget, which still awaits the governor’s approval, does include substantial appropriations for USF, and the St. Petersburg campus:

  • $35 million for the Florida Center for Cybersecurity, housed at the Tampa campus.
  • $31 million for infrastructure and safety improvements in Tampa to accommodate growth. The university is preparing for a long-awaited on-campus stadium and reimagined athletic district.
  • $10 million to upgrade facilities and services for student veterans, military families and first responders. The St. Petersburg campus will receive $6 million.
  • $7.2 million for campus life facility projects through the state’s Capital Improvement Trust Fund.
  • $3.9 million for the College of Nursing and the College of Behavioral Health and Community Science to combat the opioid epidemic.
  • $750,000 for the USF Trafficking in Person (TIP) Risk to Resilience Research Lab that will help create a statewide data repository.
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    March 26, 2024at10:40 pm

    That would certainly be a better way to spend taxpayer money than a factory (stadium) for a for-profit company owned by billionaires. Just a thought.

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