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Eckerd College explores idea of converting Mississippi riverboats into student dorms

ST. PETERSBURG — Eckerd College is floating an unusual idea for student housing:

Two Mississippi riverboats.

The concept is still in its exploratory stages, but two cruising barges that operated along the Mississippi River for 10 years recently "became available at a very attractive price," said Bill McKenna, Eckerd's director of planning, development and construction.

"Both boats would fit very nicely in a pocket of land we already own," McKenna said. "And that would help us work around some of the regulatory issues one would face in a project such as this."

Eckerd president Donald Eastman heard about the boats' availability from one of his associates three weeks ago. Soon after, McKenna and two college officials visited them in Beaumont, Texas.

The barges likely will be dismantled for scrap metal if they are not purchased by early next year, so officials plan to move quickly, said dean of students James Annarelli.

The school has hired environmental and legal consultants to explore the project's feasibility before making a offer. The total coast to convert the barges to dorms — including purchasing the boats, dredging, docking and mitigation — is estimated at $5 million to $6 million.

"If, indeed, the college decided to move forward with the riverboats, we would want to be sure they are integrated in a meaningful way into the campus to create a living and learning community," Annarelli said. "We do have initial reaction from students when they heard about the college's exploratory investigations, and in my experience . . . the reaction has been quite positive."

The barges are each 295 feet long, 55 feet wide and 30 feet high. One would house about 95 students in single-occupancy rooms with private bathrooms, plus three additional rooms for residential assistants or staff.

The other barge has a theater, a 220-person dining room with a full kitchen, a conference room and other amenities. It would be used as a student activities center.

McKenna said the school and its consultants are talking to "all regulatory agencies with interest in these things," including St. Petersburg city officials, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Coast Guard.

Since the arrangement is unusual and unprecedented in Florida, questions about which law enforcement agency would oversee it or how the property would be classified must be answered before the school goes forward with the purchase.

About 1,400 students, or 80 percent of Eckerd's enrollment, live on campus, one of the first in the country to allow students to keep pets.

Eckerd would not be the first college to create student housing on boats, though such permanent housing on boats is rare.

After Hurricane Katrina destroyed dorms at Louisiana State University and Tulane University, students were temporarily moved to riverboats.

When an outbreak of mold shut down two dorms at St. Mary's College in Maryland earlier this month, 240 students were moved onto a cruise ship for the rest of the semester.

Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com.

Eckerd College explores idea of converting Mississippi riverboats into student dorms 11/15/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 15, 2011 11:56pm]
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