Ringling College is expanding even faster than school officials hoped. The North Trail embraces the growth, but Newtown fears its impact.
A decade ago, Larry Thompson was ready for Ringling College to grow to where is today.
Thompson, the school’s president since 1999, worked alongside other college officials to develop a strategic plan in 2006. The school had a little less than 1,000 students, and wanted to grow to around 1,500. The plan was to grow incrementally: Start offering new majors such as film, then slowly admit more students as more qualified applicants expressed interest in the budding programs.
Despite the 2008 recession, the plan was on track. About 1,250 students were enrolled in 2010. Then, for reasons Thompson still can’t explain, enrollment declined. And then it did for a second year. Just like that, the carefully developed plan seemed like it was out the window.
“We had invested all the capital in these new majors,” Thompson said. “And then to see, all of a sudden, you don’t get the results from it? This is not a good thing.”
And so, five years ago, Thompson had no idea Ringling College would grow to its present size.
Enrollment numbers quickly recovered after the two-year setback. The unexpectedly small freshman classes are now graduating, with larger classes replacing them. Right now, there are nearly 1,400 students at the school, Thompson said. By next year, it could be nearly 1,500.
An influx of capital projects has accompanied the new students on campus. There’s the Alfred R. Goldstein Library, built after donors met a $16 million fundraising goal a year early. There’s the Richard & Barbara Basch Visual Arts Center, the plans for which the school is revamping to incorporate more studio classrooms. There’s the city-block-sized soundstage and post-production complex.
Most recently, the school filed plans to build a $22 million, 185-student residence hall overlooking Whitaker Bayou. Thompson said this project was sort of a shock to him — even if officials planned for this moment, the growth came with some side effects they couldn’t account for ahead of time.
“I’m thinking, I may get a respite here for a moment from construction,” Thompson said. “And then all of a sudden, a housing and a financial person came to me and said, ‘We don’t know where we’re going to house all these students.’”
Thompson has similar concerns about securing adequate classroom and studio space, which the college is working to address now. Thompson points out the college has grown its portfolio of property adjacent to the campus, which has the school well-situated to accommodate growth within its 48-acre footprint.
A campus master plan, completed in 2007, provides a blueprint for that growth. It shows the college expanding north along U.S. 41 to Patterson Drive, and east along Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way to Cocoanut Avenue.
Within the communities that border Ringling, there are mixed reactions to the school’s prosperity. Residents in Newtown have expressed skepticism about the campus creeping eastward, fearing gentrification in a historically black community.
This fear arose during the approval process for the soundstage, which is being built along Dr. Martin Luther King Way between Cocoanut and Central avenues. Residents said the project encroached into their neighborhood, using city land that previously served as overflow parking for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Park.
At the time, Thompson said the project was intentionally placed near Newtown as an economic stimulus. Today, residents remain dubious of the school’s intentions.
“We knew that was going to be our nemesis,” said Barbara Langston, president of the Amarylis Park Neighborhood Association. “It is coming in and, in essence, trying to take over Newtown.”
Langston said communication with the college has been spotty. She said her neighbors fear the college’s next move will be buying the park itself. She doesn’t think that’s the case, but she shares their sinking feeling that the campus will continue to radiate outward.
“We know they damn near own everything,” Langston said.
She doubts projects such as the soundstage will create job opportunities for Newtown residents. And without the city taking more meaningful steps to stimulate the Newtown economy, she doubts people at the soundstage will venture into the neighboring area to do business.
Thompson staunchly rejected the idea that Ringling was interested in gentrifying Newtown, and reiterated his interest in supporting the neighborhood as a collaborative partner.
“College campuses tend to be very insular,” Thompson said. “We, on the other hand, are very, very committed to being engaged in the entire community.”
Along North Tamiami Trail, stakeholders agree that Ringling has been an engaged partner. Business and property owners interested in seeing improvements on the North Trail are supportive of Ringling’s growth, embracing anything that can spark revitalization in the area.
“When people see development, they see good things happening on the trail after a long time,” said Jay Patel, chairman of the North Trail Redevelopment Partnership. “Every bit helps.”
Patel said Ringling was an early supporter of the NTRP when it formed in 2009. He’s hopeful the group can work with the college to enhance promotion of the North Trail. Thompson said he’d like to see even more activity along the North Trail, and said other colleges in the area are working to make the communities around their campuses more student-friendly.
Eventually, Thompson thinks Ringling’s period of growth will come to an end — he guesses the student body will level out at around 2,000. In the meantime, though, he isn’t ruling out the college doing more to expand the boundaries of its campus.
In the process, he pledges the college will act as an engaged part of the broader Sarasota community. He thinks Ringling has an obligation to enhance the community around it, and he thinks the institution is better off with a two-way relationship, too.
“It benefits, I think, students to see that,” Thompson said. “It benefits the faculty and staff, encouraging them to be engaged — not just in your own little island.”