MANATEE -- Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, visited IMG Academy on Wednesday to tour new and old facilities, in a possible pitch by IMG to get federal funding after Gov. Rick Scott vetoed about $2 million in the state budget at the last minute in 2015.
Buchanan said he has been meaning to tour the facility for a while, and the snowstorm in Washington, D.C., prompted this visit. While he said no specific talks about federal funding for IMG have happened yet, he's open to discussing the idea.
"We don't do earmarks like we used to do it. But there might be grants or other opportunities from a federal standpoint," Buchanan said after his tour. "I think it'd be a great investment, because that's what the taxpayers are looking for if they invest in something: Is it going to create jobs and opportunities for people in the community? And not only jobs, but a lot of good-paying jobs, which to me is the most important thing."
IMG was the subject of scrutiny in July when the Legislature added about $2 million in funding to the organization during budget talks without explanation. IMG repeatedly denied requests for comment on the matter, only saying the money would help draw more economic development to the area. Tuition for the athlete-specific school with boarding is about $70,000 per year, and the campus is undergoing large expansions.
The governor vetoed the budget line item after IMG received $7.3 million in state funding in the two previous years.
Buchanan said regardless of the controversy on state funding, he's happy to see a successful enterprise in Manatee County.
"They have 800 employees, $340 million in economic development -- looking to double that in the next five to 10 years -- it's the only place of its kind in Florida, the country and the world that develops student-athletes," Buchanan said. "One of the things I'm most excited about is they had a school here before that was probably OK, but now they're not only building world-class athletes, but they're also building world-class student-athletes."
IMG officials emphasized this in a meeting before the tour with Buchanan, saying the school had issues with athletes who came in later grades and weren't where they should be academically.
"So many we find come here and have been pushed through their schools, because they're star athletes," Greg Phillips, vice president and athletics director of IMG, told Buchanan.
Chip McCarthy, senior vice president and co-managing director; Chris Ciaccio, vice president of marketing and outreach; and Phillips told Buchanan they aggressively recruit the top coaching talent for their students, and recently thought there's no reason they shouldn't do the same for academics.
Officials also touted the economic impact of IMG, saying through camps, training facilities, students and other events the organization brought about 250,000 people to the area every year, counting athletes, coaches, families and visitors. Summer camps, when Manatee and Sarasota are seeing their slow season, draw a huge amount of business to local airports and hotels, Ciaccio said. The same could be said for events for pro athletes hosted at IMG facilities.
"We take down every hotel room from Sarasota to St. Pete when those events are going on," Ciaccio said.
IMG continues to add to the campus, with a Campus Center for students newly opened in December, including a large food hall and more recreational activities for students. A Performance and Research Center is slated to open in June, which would include facilities such as a "Mind Gym," an area for mental conditioning; a nutrition training center to promote proper eating for athletes; expanding a campus hospital for special surgery; and expanding Gatorade research.
"One of my sons had a rehab here about 10 years ago, so we were on campus, and it's 10 times what it was back then," Buchanan said. "It's unbelievable what they're doing with new facilities."
Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055.