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St. Pete ocean science center tops USF’s legislative wish list

The university will ask Florida lawmakers for $30 million in the upcoming session as a first step toward the project.
The angular peninsula jutting into St. Petersburg's Bayboro Harbor is home to the USF College of Marine Science. Plans call for a wing of the college to be demolished to make way for an $80 million oceanographic research center. USF hopes to secure $30 million toward the project during the 2022 legislative session. At right is Albert Whitted Airport.
The angular peninsula jutting into St. Petersburg's Bayboro Harbor is home to the USF College of Marine Science. Plans call for a wing of the college to be demolished to make way for an $80 million oceanographic research center. USF hopes to secure $30 million toward the project during the 2022 legislative session. At right is Albert Whitted Airport. [ University of South Florida ]
Published Nov. 23
Updated Nov. 23

At the top of the University of South Florida’s wish list this year for capital funds from the Florida Legislature is a request that leaders across the region say could boost St. Petersburg’s stature as a marine science hub.

The university plans to request $30 million during the upcoming legislative session and $30 million in 2023 to launch an $80 million facility on its St. Petersburg campus dubbed the Interdisciplinary Center of Excellence in Environmental and Oceanographic Sciences. The Legislature convenes on Jan. 11 for its regular 60-day session.

The remaining $20 million will need to come from the community, interim USF president Rhea Law told the St. Petersburg City Council at a recent meeting, saying the project could make “international waves.” Council members expressed resounding support for the initiative and passed a resolution supporting it.

“I really believe we can be No. 1 in ocean sciences with this kind of facility,” Law said.

USF interim president Rhea Law
USF interim president Rhea Law [ University of South Florida ]

The initiative is the first step in realizing a plan presented to legislators last year following criticism from Pinellas County leaders that the St. Petersburg campus had diminished as part of the recent USF consolidation. The plan transforms the campus into academic clusters centered around marine sciences. The clusters would cross disciplines, including data visualization in the arts, science journalism and communications, and risk management and insurance in business.

To make way for the new center, the northwest wing of the Marine Sciences Complex would be demolished and the remaining 80-year-old facilities would be remodeled. The facility would house the Florida Flood Hub for Applied Research and Innovation and a new data visualization center that could provide information and analysis to businesses and policymakers.

Law said House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, understands the importance of the center to the state. City Council members Gina Driscoll and Ed Montanari expressed their support for rallying the community behind the initiative.

“We’re there with you to be part of that one voice,” Driscoll said. “We stand ready to do whatever it takes to make that happen. This is already a city known for its wealth of resources in marine sciences. This is going to elevate it more. That’s going to help us become that nationally recognized place and that go-to.”

St. Petersburg already houses hubs for the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and soon the Maritime and Defense Technology Hub.

USF’s College of Marine Science has long been an anchor and point of attraction for academic marine science research, said Jason Mathis, CEO of St. Petersburg’s Downtown Partnership. But the new initiative, he said, could make St. Petersburg a destination for marine sciences businesses as well.

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“It could put St. Petersburg on a map globally for marine science,” Mathis said. “Every city has an industry or market segment that sets it apart. … Marine sciences in a lot of ways is the future for the business community in carving out a distinct business identity.”

Thomas Frazer, the College of Marine Sciences dean, said the project is an opportunity to build on existing partnerships and find synergies between disciplines that range from the arts to business.

College of Marine Science dean Thomas Frazer
College of Marine Science dean Thomas Frazer [ University of South Florida ]

“I’m super, super excited with the ability to move forward,” he said. “It’s not just about science, but making that science available to people who rely on it, whether it’s local businesses or decision-makers.”

Martin Tadlock, regional chancellor for the campus and an architect of the plan, said St. Petersburg could emerge as a leader in finding solutions at a time when climate change and rising sea levels pose challenges for coastal communities across the country.

“It’s becoming critical to do something and take action,” he said. “We’re already behind where we need to be.”