TAMPA — A university proposes a big expansion from its outlying campus to the heart of downtown. The mayor calls it a “game changer.” Downtown business folks rejoice.
That sounds a lot like the University of South Florida’s recent announcement that it is considering relocating its medical school to downtown Tampa. But it is also a scene playing out in Orlando, where the University of Central Florida wants to push into the city center.
And both Florida schools point to Phoenix, where Arizona State University has strayed from its main Tempe campus into the land of the skyscrapers — to tremendous success.
Kansas City, Milwaukee, San Diego — all are hoping to lure university expansions in their city centers.
“It is a trend,” said Wellington “Duke” Reiter, a senior adviser to ASU’s president who was instrumental in that school’s expansion from the so-called East Valley into downtown Phoenix. “It tends to be in cities whose downtown is not as vibrant as they might like. Many of these cities have wonderful downtowns, but they want to see more activities.”
Reiter said major sports centers “do a lot” for downtown revitalization, but not consistently. Major company relocations, of course, also help beef up a moribund downtown.
“But universities might be the best answer in that once they are located in an area, they never leave,” he said. “They continue to grow, they continue to plan. They’re a good play.”
Rumors had swirled that USF was interested in moving its crowded Morsani School of Medicine from the main Fowler Avenue campus to downtown Tampa, and last month President Judy Genshaft confirmed it was on the table.
On Oct. 14, a USF trustees’ committee revealed that Jeff Vinik, owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning and a major downtown real estate developer, was offering a parcel at Meridian Avenue and Channelside Drive to the university for the medical school.
“If you’re sitting in Judy Genshaft’s seat, the opportunity to create a signature building in the downtown core with USF establishing a footprint there is a game-changer for USF and for downtown Tampa,” said Mayor Bob Buckhorn.
“If we are able to pull that off, that’s going to change the whole dynamic. Not only will the medical school come down, but probably pharmacy will come down, the Heart Institute, the College of Nursing. You create a whole economic engine there that will fill up the apartments and condos that are being built. It will bring in retail.”
USF’s move is hardly a done deal. A trustees’ committee meets Thursday, with medical school dean Charles Lockwood scheduled to give a “downtown initiative update.”
If downtown is indeed the intention, USF will have to move fast.
The school is asking the State University System Board of Governors, which in turn will ask the state Legislature, for $17 million to keep the new medical school proposal moving, and the board on Oct. 7 told Genshaft it wants a firm location.
The last scheduled systemwide board meeting for 2014 is Nov. 5-6, and the board typically submits budget requests to the Legislature in January. Board members said they would be willing to hold a special meeting to hear another presentation from USF.
USF plans to seek $20 million more for a med school in 2016-17 and another $20 million the year after that. Counting the $5 million already allocated for USF to study the move, the tab would come to $62 million.
Look no further than 80 miles east to see a similar scenario playing out.
In September, UCF president John Hitt announced that the university would build a campus in downtown Orlando, with mayor Buddy Dyer declaring such a move to be a “game changer” for that city.
The demolition of Orlando’s old basketball arena opened up a swath of land the city is hoping to turn into the Creative Village, a breeding ground for digital media and tech companies. UCF and Valencia College propose to cooperate on projects that could bring about 10,000 students to that site.
UCF will seek $50 million to $60 million in state money for the expansion next year, with the eventual tab for downtown campus coming to $150 million to $200 million. UCF now has about 60,000 students, most based at the main campus 13 miles to the east.
Cassandra Lafser, a spokeswoman for Dyer, said the mayor has focused on downtown redevelopment, diversifying Orlando’s economy and preparing for jobs of the future.
“We want our homegrown talent to be able to take those jobs, too,” she said. “Certainly, creating this synergy with the Creative Village and having an educational component like UCF down there would lend itself to making that vision a success.”
With those visions of more jobs, more buildings and more activity comes economic impact.
An ASU economist estimated in June that the university had a total employment impact, including school employees and all other positions indirectly induced, of 24,200 jobs. The total labor income for the Phoenix economy associated with those jobs was estimated to be $1.1 billion, and ASU’s overall contribution to the city’s 2013 gross product was put at nearly $1.8 billion.
A key development in Phoenix was a light rail line linking the Tempe and downtown campuses. Phoenix Metro now has 20 miles of track and has surpassed ridership projections for 2020.
“I’m sure a man as astute and successful as Jeff Vinik would not give property to the university unless he understands the synergetic effect it would have,” said David Smith, managing partner of the Gray Robinson law firm and chairman of the Tampa Downtown Partnership. The partnership has not taken an official stand on any USF move, but Smith said speaking as an individual, the move looks good.
“If they move their facility down here, it’s just going to spawn other types of relationships. You attract world-class talent, and you end up becoming a world-class city.”
Buckhorn said ASU’s move to downtown Phoenix has “transformed” that metropolitan area.
“When Arizona State moved into downtown, light rail all of a sudden started to work, students moved down there ... If you look at any city in the country that has a university in its urban core, it’s a big economic engine,” he said. “We’re going to do whatever we can to make it happen.”