UCF/Valencia's downtown campus: Universities as community economic engines
UCF was one of the first Florida schools to dip its toe in the innovation pool in 2006.
Then-Gov. Jeb Bush wasn’t sold on UCF President John Hitt’s argument that the university needed a medical school to increase the supply of physicians in Florida. But Bush was intrigued by billionaire businessman Joe Lewis’ vision that a UCF medical school — along with a branch of the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute and a new VA hospital — could help transform Lewis' 7,000-acre mixed-use development in southeastern Orlando into a vibrant biotech hub that would create thousands of jobs.
To sweeten the deal, Lewis’ company, Tavistock Development, donated $12.5 million and 50 acres for the medical school. Fourteen years after Bush and Florida’s Board of Governors greenlit the medical school, the former cow pastures are the fastest-growing part of Orlando.
Meanwhile, UCF’s presence in Lake Nona’s Medical City keeps expanding. In a joint venture with HCA Healthcare, the university is building a teaching hospital, and it’s preparing a new university cancer center in space once occupied by Sanford Burnham, which left Lake Nona in 2018 amid financial difficulties.
Despite Sanford Burnham’s exit, there are other new neighbors in the biomedical complex including the $18-million Johnson & Johnson Human Performance Institute; the KPMG Lakehouse, the accounting firm’s $450-million learning and training facility; and the USTA National Campus, the largest tennis facility in the nation.
Thad Seymour, UCF's former interim president and once a Tavistock executive, says his work on Lake Nona’s Medical City made him a “wholesale believer” in the innovation district strategy. “Innovation happens at the intersection of ideas and disciplines and people — and you need to create some density of all these things to really accelerate innovation,” he says.
Center of gravity
Hitt, UCF’s president from 1992 through 2018, saw the economic leverage a university can wield on a 2013 trip to Phoenix. There, Arizona State University President Michael Crow spearheaded the creation of a campus that transformed a moribund section of downtown into a vibrant district filled with students, businesses, hotels and restaurants. It wasn’t lost on Hitt that ASU’s main campus in Tempe was about the same distance from downtown Phoenix as UCF’s main campus is from downtown Orlando.
At the time, the city of Orlando was working on a plan to redevelop 68 acres where the Orlando Magic’s old NBA arena once stood into a high-tech, digital arts district called Creative Village.
UCF already had a presence there: It was leasing space from the city for its video game design program, the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy (FIEA). Hitt reckoned that the university might be able to emulate ASU’s success by ramping up its downtown footprint.
In 2014, Dyer and other community leaders joined Hitt for a return trip to Phoenix. Dyer says he came home from the fact-finding mission convinced it would be a great match for UCF to come downtown in scale — not just with a couple programs, but with a full-fledged campus with 8,000 to 10,000 students.
To kick-start the project, the city donated 15 acres to UCF. Getting funding from Tallahassee proved a bit more challenging. “The original plan was a little grander than where we’re at today. It involved a couple of buildings — about a $150-million investment between UCF and the state and the Board of Governors,” recalls Dyer.
In 2015, the Legislature earmarked $15 million for a scaled-down version of the project centered on a single academic building, but Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the funding. A year later, Scott approved a $20-million appropriation toward the $60-million project, with a caveat: The school couldn’t tap into the state funds until it raised $20 million in private donations. The remaining third of the tab would have to come from UCF and Valencia’s own coffers.
UCF cleared its $20-million fundraising hurdle by fall of 2016 and broke ground on their “21st century campus” the following spring.
While UCF and Valencia have a history of collaborating to provide access to higher education in Central Florida, the shared downtown campus put the partnership on steroids. Students attending the campus wouldn’t be labeled as UCF students or Valencia students — they’d simply be “downtown students” — and the two schools vowed to make the process seamless. “Student services, financial aid, record-keeping, security — everything would be partnered,” says Valencia College President Sandy Shugart.
The partnership between the two institutions also cuts students a financial break. For their first two years, downtown students taking general education program courses can pay Valencia College rates — dropping the cost of a bachelor’s degree from $24,650 to $18,920. The average class size, meanwhile, ranges from 24 to 31 students. “It’s a very personalized education in an urban environment,” Shugart says.
Shugart and Seymour, who spearheaded the creation of the downtown campus, cite another imperative in planning their downtown campus — choosing the right programs for the location and moving them at scale.
“We didn’t want to make this just a regional campus or a campus where people would take some of their classes. We took whole programs down there, so it would become the center of gravity,” Seymour says.
With City Hall, courthouses and dozens of law firms a short walk from the downtown campus, UCF’s College of Community Innovation and Education was a natural fit. The school offers degrees in legal studies, public administration, public affairs, non-profit management, health services administration and other fields. UCF’s Nicholson School of Communication and Media also moved downtown, joining the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy, which had been downtown for 14 years already, in a newly renovated Communication and Media building.