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USF's ship comes in, but where will it dock?

Despite a tight budget, Congress gave the University of South Florida $2.5-million this week to design a ship for the 21st century.

Now that it has the money, USF isn't sure exactly how to spend it.

"We do not have a specific spending plan yet," USF President Frank Borkowski said Thursday.

But that didn't keep Borkowski from boasting of his financial coup.

"In a year when we were informed there would be no startup money for new projects, we're very pleased we were awarded $2.5-million," he said.

Congress approved the money for creation of the Marine Engineering Institute, a multidepartment effort whose goals are to design a new generation of cargo ships and tankers, study port facilities and develop new oceanographic instruments.

It will involve USF faculty from the marine science and engineering departments and, perhaps, chemistry faculty from the University of Tampa, Borkowski said. He wasn't sure Thursday how many people would be involved or when it would all get started.

USF came up with the project after determining what was "hot in Washington," as Borkowski assistant Jeff Muir described it, then put together a team of university, business and community officials with political savvy to get the money.

Most of it, $2-million, will come from the Defense Department, and $500,000 from the Commerce Department. Those are the first payments toward a total of $9.8-million that USF expects to get from Congress over the next three years.

On Wednesday, some USF officials had said that the Marine Engineering Institute would be linked with a new, state-funded $18-million marine science research facility to be built on USF campus in St. Petersburg. Groundbreaking on the building is scheduled for Oct. 29.

But Borkowski said Thursday that he hasn't decided yet where the institute will be housed. He said he wants to talk to congressional staff before he determines how he can spend the money.

Borkowski came up with the idea for the institute in June after learning that Congress was ready to spend money in the "marine engineering area."

USF was already doing marine research at the St. Petersburg campus and ship design in its engineering college, he said. So he called on three prominent men in the community to help him get Congress' attention: Andy Hines, retired chairman of Florida Progress Corp. and a member of the USF Foundation Board; Joseph Garcia, a Tampa lawyer and Tampa Port Authority board member; and Paul D. Butcher, a retired vice admiral and chairman of American Ship Building Co. until he died Aug. 3.

The team credited U.S. Rep. C. W. Bill Young with pushing the project through. Young said Thursday he was drawn to the proposal because he hopes "it will be a beginning for survival of the shipbuilding industry in the United States." We are losing out to foreign countries that can build ships cheaper, he said.

Young, who is in the midst of a re-election campaign, didn't apologize for bringing home the bacon in a tight budget year. Hines defended the effort as well, saying the institute will be a boon to USF and the area.

"The rest of the 49 states and 250-million people are doing the same thing," he said. "We're not trying to get anything that does not properly belong in the Tampa Bay area."

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