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To think, four-year university right here

Florida needs more public universities, and the state should build one - or at least a branch of an existing one - in Citrus County.

Florida has 11 public universities. Of the 30 largest universities in the nation, five are part of Florida's system. And university enrollment is on the rise.

University chancellor Mark Rosenberg is calling for a $3.4-billion investment to meet the demand. Gov.-elect Charlie Crist has said it's time to consider building more four-year schools.

But where? The chancellor's office told me no county has dibs on the next school or branch campus. The playing field is open.

Here's my case for Citrus County:

- Gainesville, Tampa and Orlando are the nearest campuses. They are close, but hardly next door. A university or branch here wouldn't crowd its siblings. Many Florida counties couldn't say that.

- Students could come to a Citrus campus from anywhere, of course. But assume that many would arrive from the surrounding area.

This region is growing, and the public universities closest to it - the University of Florida (50,000 enrollment), the University of Central Florida (46,000) and the University of South Florida (44,000) - already are among the state's biggest.

Although this argument concerns public universities, it's worth noting that Citrus isn't home to any private colleges, either.

- Granted, Citrus is hardly a wellspring of young people: Only 17 percent of the 134,000 or so residents are younger than 18, according to the most recent numbers. The median age is 51 plus, second highest (behind Charlotte County) in Florida.

But Charlotte is trying to get a satellite campus of Florida Gulf Coast University, which is in Fort Myers.

If it makes sense there, why not here?

- Florida is a magnificent state. Every county has special features that a community of scholars and students could embrace, study, enliven or shake up a bit.

Citrus has a Progress Energy nuclear power plant, and maybe another on the way; manatees; environmentally sensitive coastal and lakes regions; the state forest; a large elderly population; and so on.

Imagine the research possibilities and mutually beneficial partnerships. What a great living laboratory Citrus would be for a university community.

- Citrus has reasonable access to the Florida Turnpike, Interstate 75, the Suncoast Parkway and U.S. 19. Access to the Gulf of Mexico is always an attractive selling point.

- Citrus cares about education and has supported its branch of Central Florida Community College. This argument for a four-year school, by the way, isn't a slam on CFCC, which does a fine job.

- Citrus has large tracts of land suitable for a campus. The county is growing, for sure, but there's plenty of room left to do a project like this right.

I asked Chuck Dixon, director of planning and growth management for the Citrus school system, what he thought about this idea.

Dixon is a parent, a veteran of Citrus County government and an expert on development issues.

He said Citrus would be an "ideal place" for a new university or, better yet, a branch.

There are many advantages for Citrus.

Higher education would be an ideal engine for economic development.

Think of the businesses that spring up around colleges - not only retail and restaurants but also consulting firms and other professional services.

A university or branch also would add cultural amenities and enhance the ones we already have.

If it's a new school, I even have a name picked out: Florida Nature Coast University.

Would Citrus be a good location?

In the age of distance learning and the Internet, does it make sense to build more ivory towers anywhere? Let me know at