ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas County's only public university has been having a bit of an identity crisis. And really, who could blame it?
Created in the 1950s, the University of South Florida St. Petersburg didn't begin graduating its own students and housing them on campus until the last decade. Today the small waterfront campus, once seen as a satellite for the main university in Tampa, is becoming a first choice for some Pinellas high school graduates.
So the university's leaders started to wonder: What should this school be known for? How large should it grow? What is USF St. Petersburg?
Now, after nine months of forums, workshops and field trips, the university has its answer. USF St. Petersburg wants to double its student body, become a research destination for faculty, and build brand-name academic programs in finance, health care and information technology.
That kind of expansion could present a challenge for the campus, constrained on all sides, including vertically by the flight paths from neighboring Albert Whitted Airport.
But Chancellor Sophia Wisniewska, hired last year for her experience in strategic planning, says expanding the university from 4,700 students to 10,000 by 2024 is the financial key to providing the services typical of a high-powered campus.
"Throwing a bunch of students into a large lecture hall for the sake of tuition dollars is what we're trying to avoid here," Wisniewska said in an interview. "We want more resources, and to do that, we're going to need students to justify it."
The strategic plan will be presented for approval to USF President Judy Genshaft and the Board of Trustees at its September meeting in St. Petersburg. Although university officials are still writing the plan, Wisniewska said most of the concepts have been nailed down.
Expanding the student body will provide more funding for USF St. Petersburg, which primarily runs on tuition dollars it receives based on enrollment. Wisniewska said the university wants to use that money to hire more faculty and make St. Petersburg a destination research institute.
With more students, the school also would beef up services such as academic counseling. In addition, it would expand its program offerings, focusing on industries currently thriving in Pinellas. Wisniewska mentioned potential relationships with Valpak, Bayfront Health St. Petersburg and HSN, among others.
"I think everybody wants USFSP to be viewed as a center of excellence in some core areas," says Greg Holden, a member of the strategic plan's steering committee and a vice president of Manning & Napier Advisors, an investment company with a regional office in St. Petersburg. "You think of MIT; they're going to have great engineering. They're going to have great other programs too, but they're a hub for that."
More faculty, students and courses mean more offices, dorm rooms and classrooms. And getting the dollars to build the long-planned College of Business, which the university hopes to open in 2015, has been a struggle with the Florida Legislature.
Though more students would mean more cash, school officials admit they'd have to be creative in finding space for an expanded campus.
"We constantly are on the lookout for opportunities to grow physically. It's not a secret that we've just purchased, or will be purchasing, Gulfcoast Legal," Wisniewska said, referring to a small office building on First Street S. "While that doesn't give us a lot of acreage, it does give us a little."
The chancellor said the school also is looking at fitting more dorm rooms into its current residence halls — there's one standalone building, as well as a dormitory on the top floors of the student center — and forging partnerships with local developers who would lease rooms to students.
Frank Biafora, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said that more levels could be added to the university's parking garage, allowing the school to turn the large parking lots on Sixth Avenue S into academic buildings.
"There could be a sand volleyball court, a new pool, residence halls," Biafora said.
USF St. Petersburg included city leaders in its strategic planning, and City Council member Karl Nurse, who represents the area, said he's hopeful the council would accommodate the school's physical growth.
Nurse said he could see the university extending as far as 17th Avenue S, the northern edge of the Old Southeast neighborhood. He also sees opportunities for the university to build west of Fourth Street S and demolish or take over some businesses.
"There's a lot of stuff that the world would be a better place if it was replaced," Nurse said. "Some of it's vacant, there's a car wash that's for sale, there's a strip center that's very modest."
USF St. Petersburg students working in the student center last week were happy to learn that the campus was set to grow, even those who chose the school for its small size.
"Even if it grew to 10,000, that's not too big," said Alissa Mercado, 20, a senior majoring in accounting. "It's awesome in the sense that more students means more potential for bigger concerts and events to come to campus."
Chris Moses, a 19-year-old junior, said he likes spending time and taking classes at St. Petersburg, even though Tampa is his "home" campus. "You have a voice here. And there, you're nothing." He'd like to see the parking lots replaced with volleyball courts, "and a blob out back where we could jump and do cool stuff."
Lisa Gartner can be reached at [email protected] Follow @lisagartner on Twitter.