SARASOTA -- When he first started working at University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee in 1996, Ben Ellinor worked out of a modular office on the New College campus. It wasn't until eight years ago the university moved to its permanent home.
"We just kind of busted at the seams, in terms of the space that was available to us," said Ellinor, the regional vice chancellor for business and finance at USF.
Now, with its own campus and possibility for growth in the future, the youngest and smallest of the three USF campuses is ready to celebrate its 40th anniversary this September, with three special anniversary events and incorporating the special 40-year theme into regularly scheduled events.
On Sept. 15, 1975, the regional chapter of the USF system -- at the time named
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University of South Florida at Sarasota, it was renamed to include Manatee in 1998 -- opened to students for the first time.
"The 40th anniversary coincides really nice with a couple other milestones," said Sandra Stone, the regional chancellor who has been with the university since November 2014.
"It really feels like a turning point," Stone said.
In addition to celebrating its 40th anniversary, the university recently rolled out a five-year strategic plan; had a ban lifted that limited the number of lower-level students the university could enroll; and installed several new campus leaders, Stone included, in the past few years.
One perk of being small and young? It makes the university nimble, said Dennis Stover, the regional vice chancellor for advancement. Stover has worked at USFSM since 2011.
"We get to be a lot more flexible," he said. "We can address the community needs."
And as a local, public university, serving the community' needs and partnering with the community make up the school's entire mission, officials say.
"We have a vested interest in the quality of life in the community," Stone said.
And the community is changing. When Ellinor arrived in 1996, there was no Lakewood Ranch yet, save for a small development on State Road 70 -- the whole development has happened in the past 20 years. Ellinor was part of a focus group to discuss whether a country club would be worthwhile in the area.
Both downtown Bradenton and downtown Sarasota have reinvented themselves since USF first opened its door. Both local school districts are planning to build more schools, bringing in new families and potential new students.
The area is no longer what it used to be. And with the continued development, university officials expect the university corridor area to be the next focus. And they plan to be a part of it.
With USF, New College, Ringling College and State College of Florida all located in the central area, the time may be ripe to become more of a "college town," Stover said, with food, nightlife and other entertainment options that appeal to the younger, college aged students who invade the area nine months of the year.
"We sit on one, it's there," Stover said. "It may be harder to redevelop than build, but we could be the college town of the future."
And as the younger students join the campus, more changes are needed. The younger, more traditional type of college students are more social, and they want to spend more time on campus, in lounge and study spaces with their peers. And some want housing.
As it stands, USFSM is the only non-residential campus of the three USF branches. But with the vocal cry from the students, they may begin to explore some options to fit the needs of the campus and the community.
At the same time, the world of higher education is changing. Employers are telling campus officials they need skilled workers, as opposed to liberal arts thinkers. And universities and colleges have been notoriously slow to change.
In response, USF is creating stronger business alliances, working with local alums -- there are 17,000 from the USF system in the area -- to see what employers are looking for. They're pairing more students with hands-on internships and they're looking to incorporate certificates into degree programs so that students are graduating with that general knowledge that comes from holding a degree and the more specialized knowledge that it takes to earn an industry certification.
"We're trying to find the sweet spot there," Stone said. "We offer a viable alternative to New College and State College and the other campuses in the USF system."
Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.