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USFSP science facility faces a ‘tighter budget’

Mark Parker

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University of South Florida officials will request an additional $36 million in state funding to start construction on a long-awaited Environmental and Oceanographic Sciences Research and teaching facility adjacent to the College of Marine Science campus. Photo by Mark Parker.

The University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus will soon house an $80 million Environmental and Oceanographic Sciences (EOS) research and teaching facility; most project details, however, remain unclear.

The state budget, signed in June, included $24.3 million for the EOS. School officials provided the expansive project’s first updates at an Oct. 30 USFSP campus board meeting.

Carole Post, vice president for facilities and public safety operations, said the long-awaited facility embodies President Rhea Law’s ambitious plans for the consolidated university. She also noted that USF officials established an $80.34 million project estimate before building costs soared.

“And also, the fact that this is a multi-year process means that every year that goes by before we put shovels in the ground – or get a commitment from builders or developers – prices shift, and commitments can change,” Post added. “So, we will be working very diligently to put as much into this $80 million as possible, notwithstanding that it is a few years old.”

A graphic showing the Environmental and Oceanographic Sciences (EOS) Research and Teaching Facility’s initial site plan. Many aspects, including the parking configuration, could change. Screengrab.

Post explained that university leadership began formulating plans for the transformative project in 2020. In November 2021, Law publicly announced its scope.

University and local stakeholders believe the facility will further cement the Innovation District as a mecca for marine science. Law has said the EOS will attract students interested in solving the world’s environmental problems and faculty at the peak of their professions.

The interdisciplinary center will bring new degree programs to USFSP and promote the local blue economy. It will also house the Florida Flood Hub.

State legislators allocated $75 million for the EOS in May 2022, more than doubling the university’s initial request. Governor Ron DeSantis vetoed the funding a month later.

In January, Law urged local stakeholders not to think “for one moment” that school leadership paused their pursuit of project funding. That persistence paid dividends this summer.

“It’s helpful that we’re not starting from scratch,” Post said at Monday’s meeting. “But … times have changed. Our needs have changed, and our strategies have evolved.”

An artist’s illustration of the $80 million+ EOS at USFSP. Screengrab.

University officials are now collecting internal and external stakeholder feedback to maximize the project’s benefits while keeping it in the $80 million price range. Post said that would continue through November.

Extensive public and private outreach will also influence USF’s request for design and construction proposals. Post expects to have solicitation materials ready by the end of December.

However, that is where the timeline stopped. Post said stakeholders must now reconcile their evolving needs with a “tighter budget.”

“The $80 million is yesterday’s world,” she said. “But $80 million can still be well spent.”

Post said that could include more shared facilities and less office space. She also stressed that deferred maintenance of the Marine Science Laboratories (MSL) is an ongoing concern.

Built during World War II, the MSL building was part of the original U.S. Navy Maritime Training Center. University documents show previous repair estimates total $9 million, a cost that has likely increased.

Post said USF officials knew the facility was “in dire need of capital improvements” two years ago. However, they didn’t want to “sink good money after bad” when the EOS project included 40,000 new square feet and a massive remodeling effort.

“When those funds did not come through the year prior, it just sunk us a little bit deeper …,” Post said. “The place is barely hanging on. Credit to the folks that occupy that building for making do.”

Built during WWII for the U.S. Navy, the Marine Science Laboratories need significant repairs. Photo by Mark Parker.

She said the state’s initial $24 million investment could help renovate areas of the MSL not scheduled to meet the wrecking ball. Project officials also hope to receive another funding boost next summer.

Mark Walsh, assistant vice president for government relations, said USF will request nearly $36 million for the EOS in the spring 2024 legislative session. He said project stakeholders “feel pretty good” about their odds of receiving the funding.

Sen. Nick DiCeglie will sponsor the ask, as he did in the 2023 session. Walsh noted that the Florida Board of Governors has already approved a $30.2 million appropriation.

Post said the university plans to raise $20 million for the EOS and expects state funding to cover the balance. She pledged to provide additional updates as the project “really takes root.”

“This is an outline of where we’ll start,” Post said. “But it may not be where we end, and where we end will be a reflection of everyone’s input.”

Extensive public and private outreach will help guide the university’s vision for the EOS. Screengrab.

 

 

 

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