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Politics

Development has big stake in Poly's uncertain future

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 02:42 AM
LAKELAND -

University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft stood next to a smiling JD Alexander, who was two years into his first term as state senator and sporting a Fu Manchu moustache.

A gas pipeline company with real estate interests was signing an agreement to donate more than 530 acres to USF for a new regional campus off Interstate 4.

The company, Oklahoma-based Williams, wanted the USF campus to anchor its planned 2,500-acre housing and business development, going so far as to require USF to acknowledge "the parties' mutual goal" of establishing graduate programs and research partnerships.

So what does Williams think now, eight years later, as state leaders look at severing USF from the project and replacing it with a fledgling, independent, unaccredited university spearheaded by Alexander?

No one is saying.

Having waited more than a decade for its development to take shape, Williams has as much at stake as anyone. But as Gov. Rick Scott decides whether to sign Alexander's bill creating Florida's 12th state university, the company is silent — at least publicly.

Williams' attorney on the development, Tom Cloud of Gray Robinson, said he didn't want to speak for Williams, though he's done so on dozens of other matters. Calls and emails to Williams' headquarters have gone unreturned, including efforts to reach out to the man who signed the land donation agreement for the company, George Shahadi.

Preston Mercer, who signed the agreement for USF, is a little surprised.

"I would think there would be some concern," said Mercer, who was then vice president of USF Lakeland, now called USF Polytechnic. Mercer is now a USF Polytechnic biochemistry professor.

"They could have given the land to Florida Southern or Southeastern. There's a reason they wanted to go with USF," he said. "Now they're going to have an unaccredited campus with no students, no faculty."

By the time the first campus buildings are finished, in 2014 if the current schedule holds, the school probably will have some students and faculty. But who will they be, Mercer asked.

The new university, dubbed Florida Polytechnic, will take at least four years to become accredited, possibly longer, say officials with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Students can't receive federal aid to attend an unaccredited university. Faculty can't receive federal research grants.

"To say it's going to be the next MIT or the next Georgia Tech is really optimistic," Mercer said.

USF put out a request for proposals for a Lakeland site in 2002, 14 years after it opened the branch on a shared campus with Polk Community College.

Of five offers, USF chose one from Williams Acquisition Holding Co., a subsidiary of an oil pipeline company based in Tulsa, Okla. It had contacted USF about the property before the request went out, eager for the development benefits that a university campus can bring.

Williams had laid out a 2,500-acre plan for a major development to include single and multifamily homes, retail and office space and a research park.

"I think their hope had been to get a university to anchor the development," Mercer said. "People want to retire close to universities. And they could build shopping centers for the students."

Records show Williams also was keen on research spinoffs — not just in Lakeland, but on the Tampa campus. It redesigned its plan after the donation was settled in 2006.

"Based on the location of the main USF campus," the new 2007 development order said, "Williams developed a new master development plan to capitalize on the opportunity to create synergy and interconnectedness between USF."

Williams shifted a proposed mixed-use "Village Center" to position it near the new campus and increased the amount of research park space to nearly 3 million square feet, the equivalent of three big shopping malls.

Williams was tightly focused on everything that happened on the site. The donation agreement required USF to notify Williams of "all issues" related to campus development.

Memos in the city of Lakeland development file show that through its attorneys at Gray Robinson, Williams lobbied state lawmakers to fund new campus construction and pushed to have a high-speed rail station located at the campus.

A 2010 Williams news release on the proposed station quoted former USF Polytechnic chancellor Marshall Goodman as saying, "this site is central to all of Polk County. It's the most accessible location being considered."

In its pitch for the station, Gray Robinson's Charles Gray touted USF Poly's plans to open its doors to 5,000 students in 2012 and "ultimately host 16,000 students."

USF had hired famous Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava to design the campus and helped bring in funding for a new road running the length of the development to a new interchange on the Polk Parkway.

But in a wilting economy, it took years for the state to finally approve construction funding, even with Alexander, a Republican from Lake Wales, serving as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.

With Gray Robinson's prodding, $35 million finally came through last year, one of the few major building projects that escaped Scott's veto.

Progress was being made, but not fast enough for Alexander. USF Poly had fewer than 1,300 students, not 5,000 as Gray had predicted, and Alexander blamed USF, saying it had neglected the campus.

Last year, he began a campaign to make Poly a separate university. And the state Board of Governors, which oversees the 11 state universities, voted to grant independence — keeping Poly with USF while it obtained campus accreditation and hit other benchmarks to prove it was ready to go solo.

Then, earlier this year, Alexander pushed a last-minute bill through the Legislature to make Poly independent right away, slowly shutting down USF's classes in Polk and setting up a new governing board to take over work on the Lakeland campus.

Scott said he's looking at the bill's pros and cons. It reached his desk on Friday, and he has two weeks to sign or veto it.

State Sen. Paula Dockery, a Lakeland Republican and opponent of immediate independence, said she's heard a lot of chatter about where Williams stands, with some people saying the company wants to maintain its USF ties and others saying it's going along with Alexander.

One wild card, she said, is that Williams' attorneys at Gray Robinson also have been involved with an effort to create a north-south road called the Heartland Parkway. It would stretch from Polk to Collier County, across land controlled by Alexander's family farm and development operations.

"Gray Robinson really wants that Heartland Parkway," and it needs a growing university in Polk to justify it, she said.


lpeterson@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7834 Twitter @TBO_USFetc

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