USF Sarasota-Manatee's bold expansion plan doubles as economic boon

Amid economic doldrums, tight budgets and skittish donors, the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee proposes a massive $50 million expansion over the next five years -- with goals of creating an academic hub, building student housing and doubling enrollment.

Is the plan too bold, too ambitious, too expensive? Or is this transformative visionary thinking, the first step toward expanding not only a campus and higher education opportunities in the region but spurring the conversion of a blighted neighborhood into an economic engine?

"Big thinking precedes great achievement," wrote Wilferd Arlan Peterson, an American author of inspirational essays and nine books, including "The Art of Living."

President Ronald Reagan spoke similarly: "To grasp and hold a vision, that is the very essence of successful leadership -- not only on the movie set where I learned it, but everywhere."

When Arthur Guilford, the regional chancellor of USF Sarasota-Manatee, unveiled that grand vision earlier this month in front of 60 community leaders, he also articulated the hopes of many in government and business for this key corridor.

This neighborhood is ripe for redevelopment with a host of the region's major assets sitting alongside Tamiami Trail: USF, New College, Ringling College, the Ringling Museum of Art, Ringling College of Art and Design and Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport among them. But U.S. 41 is also home to a long strip of aging and vacant storefronts, low-income housing and empty lots in both Manatee and Sarasota counties.

Traditionally a commuter school for upper division students, USF Sarasota-Manatee is transitioning into a four-year undergraduate student population with its first sophomore class entering this year and freshmen next fall. By also doubling student enrollment over five years from the current 4,500, the campus will need dormitories in order to offer a classic university experience.

Besides student housing, USF intends to build a $25 million academic hub as well as an aquatic center on the Powel Crosley Estate.

The five-year plan also calls for the development of commercial property along U.S. 41 via public-private partnerships that also serve students with shops and restaurants.

That should also attract additional redevelopment, a revitalization that seems destined to occur at some time. Why not sooner rather than later?

The city of Sarasota formed the North Trail Redevelopment Partnership in January 2009 with a mission of fostering sustainable commercial, residential and cultural amenities along Tamiami Trail. The membership includes the aforementioned educational assets.

Manatee County government has also been taking a sharp look at encouraging redevelopment.

USF faces a formidable challenge in raising $50 million for the first phase of this plan. With state funding for higher education construction dwindling, the university will be looking to foundations, businesses and other donors to invest and then leverage those dollars into additional money. We wish USF success.

The region will share the university's success through tourism and job growth, the beautification of a key arterial, and new educational opportunities for area students that also benefit local employers. We greatly encourage the community's participation in USF's bold endeavor.