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Down to the Wire

The FGCU Tech Institute is a go after some intense lobbying ends with $7 million in state funding and promises for economic expansion.



 

It’s been seven years coming, and the lobbying was intense: Finally, in the latest state budget, Florida Gulf Coast University won $7 million in funding to build its Emergent Technologies Institute (ETI)—a central element of the long-planned FGCU Innovation Hub park.

Now, over the next several months, construction will begin on a woody 241-acre site off Alico Road, north of the FGCU campus and adjacent to Southwest Florida International Airport. On 6.5 acres donated to the university, FGCU will put up a 25,000- square-foot research center—the Emergent Technologies Institute that will be dedicated to the study of renewable energy, with an emphasis on solar and energy storage technologies. In the rest of the park, developers of the IHub plan to attract high-tech research, product development and manufacturing companies interested in locating near the university and tapping its talent. (FGCU will gain a percentage of the revenues from the land sales or leases, which will help provide ongoing funds for the technology institute.) “This has the potential to change Southwest Florida,” predicts John D. Backe Sr., a longtime media executive, former seasonal resident of Bonita Springs and the initial visionary behind the IHub. “This would change the landscape with higher-paying jobs and more scientific professionals. It would have quite an impact on the area.”

By opening up advanced research opportunities for faculty and students, the Emergent Technologies Institute would put FGCU on a par with University of Florida and at least six other state schools with established tech parks. The IHub could help the Southwest Florida economy take a major step toward the region’s long-term goal of diversifying beyond tourism, housing, and agriculture. “Economic development is becoming a bigger part of what we do. This region is benefitting from FGCU becoming more comprehensive as a university and as a resource to tackle problems specific to Southwest Florida. That is very intentional,” says FGCU President Wilson Bradshaw.

He played a critical role in pushing the project through the state budget process this year—a successful outcome after numerous ups and downs. Backe says he first began speaking to FGCU on 2007 about building a research park and endowing a chair (the Backe Chair) for an eminent scholar in renewable energy. “I owned 241 acres off Alico Road. It was a perfect spot for something like a research park for the university,” he recalls. In 2009, he donated $1 million for the research chair and two years later, FGCU hired Professor Joseph H. Simmons, a physicist and materials scientist who had been a professor at University of Florida from the mid-1980s to 2000, before leaving to head the materials science department at University of Arizona. He later founded a solar energy research institute there.

But getting state money to pursue the FGCU research park was problematic. Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed $5 million in funds for    the project in 2010.  In 2012, university officials were elated when the legislature appropriated—and Gov. Rick Scott approved—$4.7 million in planning and design funds. Then in 2013, the governor vetoed the budget item allocating $7.5 million in construction funding for the FGCU IHub. “I said to the governor immediately after the veto that we were disappointed but not discouraged,” Bradshaw recalls.

That set months of planning and lobbying in motion. Bradshaw and Robbie Roepstorff, chair of the FGCU board of trustees, met with Scott in Fort Myers last summer. Scott advised Bradshaw to make sure that his senior staff understood the importance of the IHub for investment, economic vitality and jobs in Southwest Florida. “I asked the governor if we could go back and forth with his senior staff with drafts. We were re-conceptualizing the project,” Bradshaw says. The university decided to call its planned institute the Emergent Technologies Institute rather than just the FGCU IHub (the name of the broader technology park) to make clearer what taxpayers would be financing if funds were approved. A document was drafted that estimated that the institute alone could spur $21 million in economic activity in the region during the construction period  and create more than 160 jobs, including 90 directly in construction. It also would open nearly 40 spots for student internships and research assistantships annually.

Bradshaw also met with state legislators, who lobbied the governor. “I let the governor know that I was supportive of it. So did Senator ([Lizbeth] Benaquisto,” says state Sen. Garrett Richter. “[Scott] saw there was actually broad community support for the project,” adds state Rep. Ray Rodrigues. The Lee County  Board of Commissioners wrote a letter backing the IHub.  And in a key move, Bradshaw, who is on the executive committee of the public-private Horizon Council, which advises Lee County on economic development, hand-delivered a letter to the governor written by council and LCEC chair Dennie Hamilton—a sign of the business community’s strong endorsement of the project. “Florida Gulf Coast University demonstrated this investment would provide a return on investment for Florida families,” wrote John Tupps, a spokesman for Gov. Scott in an email to Gulfshore Business.

“I did not breathe until I got the call that the governor had indeed signed it,” Bradshaw says.

Now that $7 million in construction funds have been approved, FGCU is busy refining the design of the technology institute.  (The university had requested $7.6 million.) “We are going to have to design and construct accordingly,” Bradshaw says. An architectural firm, Leo A. Daly, has been named and Wright Construction will be the contractor, Bradshaw says.  FGCU plans to break ground on the institute next spring and complete construction by yearend 2015.

Next to the building, the university plans to build a solar park as well as an area for conducting experiments and demonstrating the practical uses of renewable energy technologies. “We will have equipment that will measure solar power, wind … any kind of experiment in an outdoor field,” says Simmons, who holds the Backe Chair in Renewable Energy. All experiments will be open for participation by all other Florida universities. Simmons and a team of faculty and students also plan to test a pilot water desalination system powered exclusively by solar energy that is “simple, portable and reliable,” he says. Eventually, he predicts it can be sold commercially.

Thanks partly to Simmons’ wealth of contacts in the solar field, he has already had preliminary talks with two international solar companies about working with the ETI and possibly setting up operations: South Korea’s Hanwha Solar and Germany’s Calyxo. “We have one big advantage to companies like that. We can be a gateway to the Caribbean and Latin America,” Simmons notes. “If money were not an object the Caribbean should all be solar. They have to import all their fuel to produce electricity.” To boost the efficiency and reduce costs, Simmons and researchers also plan to work on battery and other energy storage experiments.

Training is another important goal. The university already offers a bachelor’s degree in environmental engineering and Bradshaw wants to develop a master’s program.  Once things get up and running, Simmons hopes to offer short courses to train specialists in solar energy installation and related skills. “The employment that will result from setting up this institute will be tremendous. As [solar energy] costs go down there’s more need for a trained workforce,” Simmons says.

In the rest of the IHub, Backe’s business partner and co-developer, Richard Galvano, is also gearing up. Construction is getting underway on Innovation Way, a road stretching from Alico Road to the future site of the ETI. Galvano, who is president of Galvano Development and the FGCU Innovation Hub, aims to build two buildings by next June—one for established technology companies that want to locate in the park and a business incubator to help startup companies get off the ground.  

Eventually, the IHub could consist of a cluster of scientific buildings (see drawing). While he won’t name any companies, Galvano says he is speaking to several local and international groups about locating at the IHub. (At press time, he said he was close to making the first announcements.) “We’ve been talking to companies for a long time. When they can see that the state and the governor [are] behind the project it is helpful for them to get behind it as well. We’re having more success than in the past,” he says. Based on a modeling formula from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Statistics, he estimates that over a 10-year period, the Innovation Hub could create as many as 6,000 jobs and stimulate $700 million in economic activity in the region.

It all adds up to encouraging economic news for Lee County, after a long and difficult downturn. Of course, FGCU may face new challenges as it gets its ambitious project off the ground. “Economic development is a very long-term play,” cautions Steven Pedigo, director of the Creative Class Group, a New York City-based think tank that focuses on technology and development issues. “We are talking 10, 15, 20 years. There won’t be a huge impact in two, three, five years.”

But Lee County officials are optimistic. In fact, Richard Michael, director of the Lee County Economic Development Office, says the FGCU IHub is just one of at least nine new industrial, office and commercial developments likely to take shape in and around Southwest Florida International Airport in the coming years. (sidebar) For now, Bradshaw deserves his measure of credit. “We may not always be the leader … but we will always be at the table,” the FGCU president says. “And we will always be a catalyst.” 

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