The State College of Florida trustees are to keep watch over the best interests of the college. And so it is reasonable for them to be questioning all portions of the Design & Economic Acceleration Lab at Lakewood Ranch.
DEAL, as it is commonly known, is a proposal by SCF to create a regional economic hub for one-stop shopping for companies looking to expand or relocate in Manatee and Sarasota counties. But the vision is much larger than that, from charter schools to lifelong learning centers to spinoffs not yet known.
SCF President Lars Hafner calls DEAL “a new model of education expansive enough to include a charter middle and high school to associate and baccalaureate workforce degrees. Through this collaboration center, SCF will have even more community impact with added focus on regional prosperity and needed workforce education and training.”
The vision is for far more than simple cross-county collaboration, although that is an important element. It is starting out with 10 acres, but Schroeder-Manatee Ranch is planning to hold 300 acres for the entire project, which could stretch over 20 years.
At a recent trustees meeting, questions were raised about the price of the land for the project. While no contract has been signed, Lakewood Ranch will surely be more expensive than other parcels of land in the two-county region. Trustees have a duty to ensure a fair price is paid and the best parcel chosen. But because of the long-term vision to make the campus a regional hub, location needs to be decided on more than cost.
Make no mistake, a central SCF college serving the region similar to the way that the Florida Gulf Coast University serves the Lee and Collier county region would be a boon for Lakewood Ranch. The spinoffs would expand its impact and be a draw for more development, including housing, and more traffic for its retail developments.
But more importantly, such a successful campus would be a boon for the Manatee-Sarasota region. FGCU has grown immensely in Lee County and has weathered the economic downturn, helping the entire region. Such a college for Manatee and Sarasota would bring the potential for significant spinoff benefits and is far less of a gamble than, say, hundreds of millions of dollars for Jackson Labs.
If the college chose a cheaper location in Palmetto or North Port — where land is indeed a fraction of the cost of Lakewood Ranch — it would have a hard time marketing itself as regional. It could not attract students from north Manatee or south Sarasota. The college might save money, but never realize the larger vision. Lakewood Ranch straddles the two counties and sits on Interstate 75, which adds immensely to the regional goal.
The project concept even has the support of Gov. Rick Scott and U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat, plus the Gulf Coast Community Foundation.
The DEAL idea has a lot going for it. If it could just stop cross-county poaching by the respective county development corporations, it would have real value. Imagine, rather than Sarasota County spending tax money to lure Manatee County companies and then Manatee spending tax money to lure Sarasota companies, they could combine efforts to make the region attractive to businesses.
SCF trustees need to make sure they are taking the long-term, big-picture view, asking these questions among others:
• What are the costs of the land options?
• What is their suitability for the goals of DEAL, including a centralized location?
• How ready is the land to develop? Is it zoned and permitted, or does it need to go through the process?
• Will there be sufficient surrounding property in coming decades to allow for the desired growth?
Rex Jensen, president and CEO of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, said the college originally approached him about this idea. But he immediately saw the value, including beyond Lakewood Ranch. “A site can’t just be cheap. It has to serve the purpose,” he said. Location, location, location.
There is much left to do to make this a reality, including getting the economic development corporations in Manatee and Sarasota counties to sign on to DEAL, and, we would hope, sign a non-aggression pact.
DEAL is worth all the parties coming together and keeping the long-term vision in mind. And the sooner it can be launched responsibly, the better.
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