The University of South Florida Polytechnic recently pledged to spend almost half a million in state dollars over three years for a video series documenting how it plans to transform a Polk County pasture into a state-of-the-art campus.
That's about eight times what USF's campus in Sarasota allocated for marketing last year and 50 times what was spent on a marketing video at USF St. Petersburg. The university's main campus in Tampa, with about 40,000 students, spent $200,000 on a variety of branding last year.
The video series is on top of the $140,000 the Lakeland branch already spent on a YouTube video showcasing the new campus' design by renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.
The climbing costs stunned some state leaders.
"It's disturbing to me, and it should be to every taxpayer," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.
It comes as the future of USF Poly — specifically whether it should split off on its own as the state's next public university — is being contemplated by Florida's higher education leaders.
A USF Poly spokeswoman said the promotional plans were in the works months before Polk County leaders, including powerful state Sen. J.D. Alexander, made a push for the campus' split mid-summer, and they have nothing to do with the prospect of a potential rebranding.
Rather, said Samantha Lane, the project is crucial to attract students, faculty and visitors from around world to the "historical" new Calatrava campus being built in a swath of rural land off Interstate 4 in Polk County.
USF Poly will recoup expenditures by selling DVD copies, which the school also hopes to pitch to PBS, Lane said.
"This investment, vs. any other marketing expense typical of a university, will have a direct return on investment," she said.
She pointed out that the project is currently on hold, pending royalty negotiations with Calatrava, and no money has yet been paid.
Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, called the project "baffling."
Then again, maybe not.
"Nothing that is happening out of this group is surprising me," Dockery added. "It's disappointing me, but it's not surprising me anymore. Everything seems to be so egocentric."
USF Poly is no stranger to the spotlight — at least, not as of late.
Just last month, Alexander, the Senate's budget chairman from Lake Wales, stood by USF Poly's regional chancellor as he gave a presentation to the Board of Governors comparing USF Poly's dream to Walt Disney's.
"There's enough land here to hold all the ideas and plans we can possibly imagine," Marshall Goodman said. "And imagine we have."
Clinching Calatrava as architect is a key part in making the dream come true. His "spectacular vision" will help turn USF Poly, a campus with about 1,000 students, into a 21st century destination, Goodman said.
The ultimate decision to create what would be the state's 12th public university rests with the Florida Board of Governors, which meets next month, and then the Legislature.
But even at a time when scarce state funding makes it tough for existing universities to maintain buildings they already have, USF Poly says the project is worth it.
So is the documentary video, tentatively called "The Calatrava Project," said the spokeswoman.
The production agreement was signed Aug. 26 with Tel-Air Interests, a Hollywood, Fla., production company that films the Miss USA and Miss Universe beauty pageants, among other commercial ventures. It lays out a plan for three videos made in three years: an eight- to 10-minute promotional "sizzle video," a TV-length documentary and an extended version for DVD sales.
The USF representative who signed, director of purchasing Tom DiBella, died last month. Grant Gravitt, Jr., from Tel-Air, did not return a message seeking comment.
Goodman authorized the project without bringing it before the USF Poly board or USF board of trustees, said Gene Engle, who serves on both boards. Engle said that was fine under Goodman's authority as regional chancellor, as he understands it.
Goodman did tell Engle about the idea, Engle said, and it sounded like a good one. But he never mentioned a price.
"Now that that's come along, it needs to be reviewed," Engle said. "That is a lot of money."
But it is important, said Lane.
She compared the Calatrava venture to another Lakeland school with ties to a famous architect: the private Florida Southern College, which boasts the world's only Frank Lloyd Wright-designed campus.
"It's kind of like that same kind of concept," Lane said. "But this is a little bigger."
A little bigger, indeed.
Florida Southern spends about $18,000 a year on marketing, said spokesman Rob Tate, most on ads in national college publications and press releases. "We do only what we can afford with limited resources," Tate said.
The school does, however, have a video that documents a walking tour of Wright's designs there. A docent at the campus visitor center made it with $2,000 of his own money, and the school sells DVD copies in the gift shop.
In the past four years, profits have reached about $4,000.
Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Kim Wilmath can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813-226-3337.