Did anyone at Hillsborough Community College seriously bother to check out Greg Neal, or were they so blinded by dollar signs they merely jumped at his development proposal? Neal has worked with HCC since 2005 on a plan to make the Tampa campus on Dale Mabry into a world-class sports-medicine institute, complete with a luxury hotel and culinary school. That idea was so in line with HCC's own vision that it granted Neal exclusive rights to negotiate a deal, despite questions about his background and experience. Now an investigation of Neal by the St. Petersburg Times' Thomas Lake has found numerous statements and claims that were exaggerated, misleading, disputed or downright false. HCC needs to clear the air. Its credibility is at stake.
Neal's proposal dovetailed with plans HCC has pursued for nearly a decade — to transform 43 undeveloped acres on the Dale Mabry campus, just east of Tampa International Airport and across from Raymond James Stadium, into a real-world experience. In addition to studying in the traditional academic setting, students would also practice physical therapy, hotel management and the culinary arts in what would be a $200-million-plus commercial development. Students would learn from working professionals without having to leave the college grounds.
When Neal made his pitch in 2005, HCC president Gwendolyn Stephenson said he had "contractual commitments" from major health providers, including the Cleveland Clinic. But a Cleveland Clinic spokeswoman told the Times: "We had no involvement"; a proposal, she said, "did not result in any relationship." Nonetheless HCC gave Neal and his company, Keystone Ventures, exclusive rights to negotiate. And new partners reportedly just kept coming. The developer said the University of South Florida, a sporting goods manufacturer and Tampa Bay Buccaneers' officials were also on board — a claim all three groups denied in interviews with the Times.
HCC finally rejected Neal's proposal, but largely on the basis of unfavorable lease terms and lack of experience. Keystone sought a deal again in 2006, and despite qualms among administrators about the group's background and business terms, HCC agreed in 2007 to move ahead. The college's board of trustees has extended deadline after deadline to come up with a development agreement. Spokesmen for the Bucs and the Tampa Bay Lightning have said Neal overstated their interest in working with the project. Neal says he has investors but will not name names.
HCC should be embarrassed for doing such shoddy background work. Its trustees have not held administrators accountable. In an interview Monday, Stephenson said she would defer a decision over Neal to give him time to respond to the Times' article. She said the college also needed more time to conduct additional "background" work.
It should not have taken three years and an embarrassing story in the newspaper for HCC administrators to get engaged. While she insisted that Neal must defend himself, Stephenson also made clear she intends to continue pursuing the joint academic and commercial project. If that is the case, the administration needs to do a better job screening the proposals, and the trustees need to better balance their vision for the college with their fiduciary responsibilities.