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Downtown U: USF a key player driving redevelopment in Tampa

UCF President John Hitt and USF President Judy Genshaft have aggressively capitalized on their schools’ economic heft, turning their institutions into economic development engines in their respective communities. In return, they’ve been embraced by government and business leaders who understand how the schools help create strong, stable employment bases. The two universities are currently playing big roles in efforts to redevelop the city center areas of Orlando and Tampa.

Last year, Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik was looking for a major tenant to anchor his redevelopment plans for downtown Tampa’s waterfront. A former hedge fund manager, Vinik had assembled big blocks of vacant land and had secured the money to begin construction, including hefty backing from Bill Gates’ private investment company.

Meanwhile, the University of South Florida was considering where to build a medical school to replace outdated facilities on its main campus in north Tampa.

Built more than 40 years ago, USF’s medical school had been designed for a different era of teaching, when students learned in classrooms rather than in interactive, small group sessions in clinical settings. At the same time, USF’s teaching hospital, Tampa General, where students do most of their clinical rotations, is downtown, creating a half-hour commute for students and faculty. Among the top 100 NIH-funded schools, says USF Medical School Dean Charles Lockwood, “we’re the only one 25 minutes or more from our teaching hospital. That’s a major problem.”

In early October, Vinik and his partners proposed to give USF an acre of property downtown. By month’s end, Lockwood, who joined USF from Ohio State a year ago, was enthusiastically revealing plans for a 12-story building that will house USF’s medical school and an associated new heart institute.

Lockwood noted that a downtown medical school will be “extremely attractive” to top-notch recruits who want to be near clinical and research opportunities and amenities.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the move will have more impact than a baseball team in jumpstarting revitalization — a reference to the much-speculated relocation of the Tampa Bay Rays from st. Petersburg to Tampa.

USF’s move illustrates the increased role that universities are playing in their communities as economic engines, and the eagerness of government and private sector developers to capitalize on the schools’ heft.

A few years earlier, Buckhorn had traveled as part of an Urban Land Institute fellowship program to other U.S. cities undergoing downtown revitalization. He learned that real estate developers like being near clusters of education and health care, which generally have remained stable and strong sources of employment.

“We were just coming out of the recession, and we kept asking people, ‘What’s driving your downtown redevelopment,’ ” recalls then-Tampa city attorney Jim Shimberg, who accompanied Buckhorn on the trips.“They kept saying ‘meds and eds.’ ”

Shimberg, now Vinik’s real estate attorney, says a co-located USF medical school and Heart Health Institute will deliver a one-two punch. “It’s going to provide the vibrancy we’re looking for — the cool factor,” he says.

The medical school alone will bring about 640 students downtown, based on current enrollment. The heart institute, which aims to improve cardiology treatment through personalized medicine, will add about 30 researchers over five years, according to USF officials.

USF also has expressed interest in putting programs in sports medicine, graduate-level nursing, pharmacy and executive wellness downtown, so those numbers could grow.

By late December, Vinik’s makeover plan was coming into focus. At an event attended by business and political leaders in the Marriott Waterside Hotel, which Vinik had recently purchased, he unveiled his billion-dollar vision for an “18-7” community near Amalie Arena — one where residents, workers, students, sports fans and visitors keep the lights turned on 18 hours a day, seven days a week.

The plan calls for 3 million square feet of space. Vinik wants to land a Fortune 500-level headquarters along with hotels, meeting space, residences, shops and restaurants. In addition to the USF-built tower, Vinik plans a 10-story medical building and parking garage.

USF now is seeking money to pay for its portion of the project. In February, the Florida Board of Governors unanimously approved the school’s request for $17 million from the state to fund the first phase of construction. USF, which received $5 million during last year’s legislative session for construction of a new facility, also willask the state for $20 million in each of the next two years.

The building’s total price tag is $153 million. USF has $50 million coming from the state for the heart institute and an $18-million donation from Frank and Carol Morsani for the medical school. If the state comes through with another $62 million, USF will have to raise an additional $23 million in private support.

Joel Momberg, CEO of the USF Foundation, says the downtown location is especially appealing to potential corporate donors. “Businesses give to a university because it’s an economic engine for the community and a feeder to their employment base,” he says. “When you have a downtown presence, you’re more within the heart of the community.”

Meanwhile, USF officials have tried to head off criticism that a move downtown will hurt the main campus. On the contrary, they say, it will reduce traffic congestion and chronic parking shortages and free up space for in-demand programs like undergraduate nursing. Neurosciences and cancer-related programs will remain on the main campus and continue to take advantage of proximity to the Moffitt Cancer Center, Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute and James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital.

In a recent study, USF found that more of its medical students live within two miles of Vinik’s redevelopment site than near the main campus.

The school also surveyed medical students who considered USF but chose to enroll somewhere else: A little more than a quarter said they might have changed their minds if USF had been in a thriving urban environment. And nearly 90% said proximity to their primary teaching facility had been a crucial factor in their decisions.

“The fact is, millennials like urban environments,” Lockwood says. “This will be the mother of all urban environments.”