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USFSP loses $75M for science facility, stakeholders react

Mark Parker

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Before the governor's veto, the plan was for USF to rebuild and transform the Marine Science Labs at the College of Marine Science (pictured) into the USF Interdisciplinary Center for Excellence and Oceanographic Sciences (EOS). Photo by Mark Parker.

State funding for the University of South Florida’s proposed Environmental and Oceanographic Sciences Research and Teaching Facility (EOS) seemed like a done deal until one stroke from the governor’s veto pen on Thursday put the $80 million project in flux.

The interdisciplinary center, set to adjoin the College of Marine Science on the St. Petersburg campus, was touted as a transformative project that would help make the campus an international destination for environmental and oceanographic research. The facility enjoyed broad, bipartisan backing from university stakeholders, area business leaders and state and local government officials.

Alison Barlow is the executive director of the Innovation District, which encompasses the St. Pete campus. She also oversees the recently opened Maritime and Defense Technology Hub, a close neighbor to the College of Marine Science. Her organization was a staunch supporter of the university, the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership and several other stakeholders through the funding process.

“The indications were that there was an incredible amount of support,” Barlow told the Catalyst. “But we all know that every budget is a different opportunity, and sometimes projects don’t make it all the way through.”

After announcing plans for the project last fall, USF President Rhea Law made several trips across Tampa Bay to rally community support. In November, she told the St. Petersburg City Council that she asked the state Legislature for $30 million this year and $30 million in 2023 to begin construction on the EOS. USF projected construction of the center to cost just over $80 million, with the Florida Board of Governors recommending that USF contribute $20 million.

In March’s legislative session, lawmakers from both the House and Senate – led by Palm Harbor resident, USF alum and Republican Speaker of the House Chris Sprowls – increased funding for the project from $60 million to $75 million in the state budget.

On Thursday, Governor Ron DeSantis shocked everyone involved by vetoing the line item, eliminating over 93% of the facility’s funding.

A rendering of the $80 million EOS, which would house the Florida Flood Hub. The governor approved $5.5 million in funding for Flood Hub, currently housed in the Innovation District’s adjacent Maritime and Defense Technology Hub. Screengrab.

Reactions

Law celebrated USF’s “transformational” state budget of over $245 million in an email to students Thursday. After thanking the governor and legislature and highlighting the university’s wins, she mentioned St. Petersburg’s enormous loss.

“We remain committed to the development of our USF St. Petersburg campus and our goals to increase the campus’ international prominence as a hub for environmental and oceanographic research and scholarship,” Law wrote.

“Many of the programmatic funding increases approved today will help us achieve those goals – and we look forward to working with the Legislature and the governor in the future to secure facilities and infrastructure funding necessary to support this important effort.”

Outgoing USFSP Regional Chancellor Martin Tadlock followed Law with an email to the St. Petersburg students and staff. Tadlock, who will remain with the university in a teaching role following his exit as its leader in July, said the project would remain a top priority.

“We are committed to working with the Legislature and the Governor’s Office in the future to make this critically important project a reality,” wrote Tadlock. “We continue to believe this facility would provide tremendous opportunities for our students, researchers and the surrounding community we serve.”

Jason Mathis, CEO of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, told the Catalyst he remains optimistic for the future of the EOS.

“While disappointed, we are committed to working with leaders in Tallahassee to ensure this project is funded in a future session,” said Mathis. “We remain very excited about the research taking place at the College of Marine Science, and the impact the center of excellence will have as an economic driver.”

State Rep. Ben Diamond did not take such a measured approach. The St. Petersburg Democrat, a recent victim of the governor’s redistricting map that drew him and his family’s home out of the congressional district he was vying to represent, said he was “truly outraged” in a statement.

“This center would have made St. Petersburg the preeminent hub for marine science and climate change research and served as a critical economic driver for the Tampa Bay region,” wrote Diamond. “This veto punishes both St. Petersburg and USF – which has been vital to our local economy.

“Funding for USF’s new Environmental and Oceanographic Sciences Research and Teaching Facility was a smart investment in the future of our state.”

USFSP alone generates nearly $443 million in annual economic impact to the state of Florida. Photo by Mark Parker.

One win for the St. Pete campus

The university planned to demolish a large portion of the waterfront Marine Science Labs at the College of Marine Science to make way for the EOS while creating 40,000 new square feet and repurposing the remaining space. In addition to the Defense and Maritime Technology Hub (the Hub), the Florida Fish and Wildlife Institute, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s regional office, a regional 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 for Applied Research and Innovation, which coordinates statewide efforts between academia and researchers to address flooding and sea-level rise, is currently a tenant of the Hub but planned to move into the EOS upon its completion. That may take a lot longer than expected.

The governor approved $5.5 million in operational funding for Flood Hub, which remains part of the USF College of Marine Science. That marks the largest USFSP-specific expenditure in the budget. The campus also lost $306,176 previously allocated to the YMCA Citizen Scholar Partnership – a collaboration between the university and the YMCA Youth in Government program.

Barlow said the governor approving funding for the Flood Hub while vetoing the money to build its future home was probably due to the “scale of dollars being requested.”

However, Barlow echoed other stakeholders by stating that Thursday’s veto does not constitute a death sentence for the EOS.

“It’s certainly … him vetoing is not the end of this,” said Barlow. “It’s just part of the journey, and we’ll continue to move forward.

“It may just take a little longer.”

The Catalyst could not reach Rep. Sprowls for comment by press time.

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