ST. PETERSBURG — With enrollment up and state funding down at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, a downtown leader is calling on the business community to step up.
Peter Betzer, president and CEO of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, is asking business people to be more proactive in ensuring the school remains an asset to economic development.
Along with writing an opinion piece in the Tampa Bay Times last month, the former dean of USF's College of Marine Science also addressed attendees of a recent Downtown Partnership luncheon about the importance of the school.
USF St. Petersburg has seen a 40 percent reduction in state-appropriated funding, totaling about $11.3 million over the past four years. Enrollment increased 26 percent during the same period. The latest legislative session called for a $5.1 million cut in the school's reserves.
"Now we've gotten to the point where we have this incredible medical complex and incredible marine science complex," Betzer said in an interview. ''We were able to attract SRI International (research facility) and Draper Laboratory, and now Draper is expanding. And now we're seeing this phenomenal thing that is being cut to ribbons. What kind of sense does that make? We're headed the wrong way."
There are no layoffs or pay cuts planned at the school, but the reduction in funding will limit student services and the ability to hire new faculty.
Betzer travels the country and the world talking up St. Petersburg as a place to do business. While USF is a strong magnet, he said, the biggest question prospective employers ask is how committed is the state to its education system.
"I don't think a lot of people understand the tremendous economic impact it has for our city. It is so much more than degrees granted and credit hours," he said.
He points to SRI's growth since it opened here in 2006 with 15 employees. It now has a staff of 86 and pays an average salary of $99,000. Draper employs 52 with an average annual salary of $86,000.
Betzer wants business people to stress the school's importance to the state Legislature so the slashing to this asset will stop.
"They needed to respectfully and politely approach every legislator in our district and ask them could they please explain the strategy of our educational network in this state," he said. "What criteria are they using to decide what gets funded and what doesn't or are we just throwing Ouija boards around?"
David Feaster, president and CEO of Cornerstone Community Bank, applauds Betzer's stance and believes St. Petersburg needs to take action beyond buttonholing the legislature.
"There's a diminishing pie in Tallahassee that's getting sliced pretty thin. The business community needs to rally behind USF St. Petersburg, the whole community needs to rally behind USF St. Petersburg," he said. "Get that foundation going, get that community funding going, get some endowed chairs at USF St. Petersburg that can bring in grant money. Let's be self-sufficient."
The school is an economy driver because it can train employees for businesses and it's a resource for potential research, he said.
"A community that's moving forward wants a nice college," Feaster added. "We don't want to lose this. We don't want it to shrink; we want it to move forward."
Agreed, said David Punzak, chairman of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce and a managing partner at Carlton Fields law firm.
"We need to say to Tallahassee, 'Let's not do this anymore. Let's make education a top priority,'" he said. "As a parent and an employer, I know it is highly important."
He reflected back to 30 years ago when he was a law student at the University of Florida and would come home to St. Petersburg on weekends. He often studied at the USF St. Petersburg library.
"It was pretty quiet then. A little sleepy. Now enrollment is up to 6,000 — that's huge,'' he said. "That's a lot of economic progress that goes into our community."
Betzer reiterated that the school needs to continue to grow but it can't with a shrinking budget.
"I hope people in the future can really have something to talk about other than 'we're near the Dalí Museum,''' he said.
Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or [email protected]