ST. PETERSBURG — In some corners of the sprawling campus it's hard to tell where the University of South Florida St. Petersburg ends and where its namesake city begins.
But as the university has grown from a meager satellite school for overflow from its main USF Tampa campus to a separately accredited institution, the surrounding city has become a home and hangout for more senior students than senior citizens.
“I remember when Johnny Carson used to make fun of St. Petersburg and all of the old people sitting on our green benches,” said Petey Herring, a Belleair resident for 40 years and longtime community volunteer. “I went down on Beach Drive for dinner one night, and I was just blown away by how many young people there are. When did St. Petersburg become so cool?”
School officials like to think the university had something to do with it, and are hoping to make an even bigger footprint on the city. The school's strategic plan is to expand enrollment from about 6,000 students currently to 10,000 during the next 10 years, which would bring in more tuition dollars for the university to add to its 35 degree programs. The plan is scheduled to be reviewed Thursday by University President Judy Genshaft and the Board of Trustees, who ultimately are in charge of the St. Petersburg university's real estate and financial affairs.
“I hope we get more degree options, because I'm a Tampa student, but I take classes here because I just love being by the water and the campus is much more laid back,” said math major Scarlet Doyle, 21, as she grabbed a beer with classmate J.J. Kimmel, 28, at The Tavern between classes.
Kimmel, a St. Petersburg native, grew up working with his father at the school's marine institute and has watched the downtown area transform during the past decade.
“I've traveled all around the world, but I keep coming back to St. Pete for the culture,” said Kimmel, an environmental science and policy major. “If they expand, I don't know if it will keep the familiar faces and small classes that make you love this school. The city might help keep that feel, though.”
Although the university has existed since the 1950s, students only began living on campus and graduating with USF St. Petersburg diplomas in 2006.
With about 4,000 students, the growing campus population encouraged Josh Tonnell, owner of Five Bucks Drinkery, to open one of the first bars in the area where college students could drink for less money than they would pay for a coffee at the campus Starbucks.
“When we opened up, downtown had no college bar vibe whatsoever. A couple bars got bought up and reopened for an older crowd, but it left a huge void,” Tonnell said. “Now that the college has expanded, we're one of the oldest bars on the block because everyone has changed concepts a couple times.”
Tonnell points to 2010, when the 30-year-old opened his bar, as the year everything changed downtown. Shortly after that, the remaining bars in the 200 block on Central Avenue changed owners or adopted models that more closely resembled Five Bucks' college-friendly atmosphere. That also was the year the Jannus Landing concert venue underwent major renovations to become Jannus Live, said Vice President of Operations Matt Loyd.
“We're not the retirement capital of the world anymore, and we're trying to lead the charge with appealing to the young, hip college demographic,” Loyd said. “I think St. Pete has become so cool because it isn't cool. You can go out in cargo shorts and flip flops and still have a great time, and the businesses don't out price themselves from that demographic.”
Driving the local businesses was the growing college population, Loyd said. USFSP approved a strategic plan in 2010 to increase its population from 4,000 to 6,000, and as more affordable apartments and college dorms were coming in, more students were discovering the city. At Five Bucks, Tonnell said has been seeing some of the same faces for years: Once students go to school in St. Pete, many decide to live there.
The students' influence on the city even has affected local laws. This month, city council members are expected to consider lifting a ban on skateboarding on downtown sidewalks. A city committee unanimously supported the proposal, citing the 100-member USFSP Longboard Club and the growth of student skateboarders as proof the law has become antiquated.
If all goes according to the university's plan, the extra tuition dollars gained from higher enrollment will turn the school into a premier research institution like the Tampa campus, and it will add programs that make use of local industries like HSN. Although space to expand is at a premium, the university has managed to squeeze dorm rooms in its student center and has purchased some downtown buildings.
On Friday nights, the iconic St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club courts, made famous as a hangout for retirees in the film “Cocoon,” transforms into a pseudo-bar scene more suited for extras from the raucous “Spring Breakers.” When the night shuffle — it was created to generate more revenue for the aging shuffleboard club — started nine years ago, it seemed to attract a few families and Eckerd College students with its house music, food trucks and craft beers. Now, it's a hot spot for USFSP, said club President Christine Page.
“What's more St. Pete than that?” Page said.