Lead Photo: The Water School flag displayed at Vester Marine Field Station
Chris Reilly’s nose is always on the lookout for red tide. There’s a certain smell to it, he said, that hits before the first waves of dead mullet and catfish wash up onshore. As the owner of Florida Adventures and Rentals based out of Marco Island, Reilly knows what a red tide outbreak can mean. “A month ago I thought I smelled something, and my stomach dropped,” he says. “This is the absolute last thing we need in the tourism industry right now, especially with what’s been going on this year. It would be completely detrimental to us.”
Like a lot of local business owners, Reilly relies on clean water to keep his company operating. Another red tide or blue-green algae outbreak would mean not just seeing local wildlife suffer, but seeing lost income for Reilly’s company and his employees. That’s why he’s one of the many Southwest Florida businesses looking to The Water School at Florida Gulf Coast University as a new hope for both the environment and the local economy.
Founded in 2019 and with a 114,400-square-foot and nearly $58 million building set to open during the spring semester of 2022, The Water School is billing itself as more than a marine science center. It anticipates being a major factor in the success of area companies.
Michael Martin, who became president of FGCU in 2017, knew early in his tenure that water would be a key component in the university’s long-term plans. “When you think about the unique nature of Southwest Florida, among the first topics that comes up is water,” Martin says. “We live in one of the most interesting laboratories for water on the planet. We’ve got freshwater problems, we’ve got saltwater problems, we’ve got agriculture versus urban problems. We’ve got rising sea levels. We’ve got red tide. We’ve got blue-green algae. When we asked ourselves what this university should be good at, water was at the top of the list.”
Martin and his team recognized that addressing water issues locally isn’t purely an academic exercise. Unless the water problems are solved, he said, they will have an adverse effect on the economy for decades. “We have all come to agree that it’s one of the most critical issues of our times.”
To that end, Martin requested that Greg Tolley, director of The Water School, appoint an interdisciplinary faculty specializing in topics that go beyond marine science. As Tolley creates The Water School’s curriculum, he’s not only pulling from the university’s science faculty. He’s also reaching out to the College of Business, the College of Engineering and the College of Health and Human Services. “A lot of the solutions for water problems in the past were not sustainable because the right people weren’t around the table,” Tolley says. “We need players from different disciplines and perspectives if we’re going to be successful. In Southwest Florida, our environment is our economy. We segment these things, but they’re all connected in a very real way. We need to leverage that connectivity to make sure we’re doing some real and permanent good.”
Shelton Weeks is part of this strategy of connectivity. As the department chair of economics and finance in the Lutgert College of Business and a Water School affiliate faculty member, he’s part of the university’s interdisciplinary approach.
“The Water School is designed to reach across academic programs,” Weeks says. “We want this to span everything that we’re doing at FGCU.” The ultimate goal: to protect local natural resources and, by extension, the area’s economy. “Water relates to everything in Southwest Florida. It’s absolutely critical to businesses across the region. We’re trying to have a positive impact in terms of preserving this precious resource.”
That positive impact, he says, extends well beyond the classroom. Though The Water School certainly caters to those pursuing studies in the marine sciences—it offers three undergraduate and two graduate degree programs—it also exposes students on other career tracks to the importance of caring for the local environment. “If we’re going to make a difference in the long run, we need everyone to participate: businesses, residents, government officials,” Weeks says. “I think our graduates will leave FGCU with a greater sense of obligation to listen and be part of the conversation. Our next wave of graduates will have a better appreciation for water issues as they’re running for public office and sitting in corporate boardrooms. When they’re tasked with shaping policies, they’ll bring that perspective to bear.”
That forward-looking, water-focused perspective is exactly why Andy Hill supports The Water School’s approach. Hill runs Andrew Hill Investment Advisors Inc., an investment management firm that integrates environmental, social and governmental (ESG) issues into its investment research process. The firm’s top holdings are geared toward solving climate change and pollution issues, and it focuses on companies that approach transportation and energy production in responsible ways. Hill has been a guest lecturer in FGCU’s business school, and he has also donated a classroom to The Water School. Each year, Hill’s firm holds an annual charity event in which it donates to various local charities, and last year the firm underwrote the work of a graduate student from The Water School.
On a personal level, Hill understands the importance of clean water to the quality of life in this area—he’s a crack catch-and-release saltwater fisherman. “It wasn’t very long ago that our whole ecosystem was on the verge of collapse with the red tide outbreak,” he says. “We’re still healing from that process, and it serves as a reminder of how delicate the situation can be.”
Hill drives an electric car and has solar panels on the roof of his home. He believes that everyone must do his or her part. Hill predicts that The Water School will play an integral role in the future of this area. “Our economic activities are tied to the health of our ecosystem,” he says.
As for Reilly at Florida Adventures and Rentals on Marco Island, he’s doing his part, too. He and his staff are heavily involved in beach cleanups, and they’ve been collecting water in the Ten Thousand Islands as part of a national research study. “We’re here to preserve and do as much as we possibly can,” he says. “Clean water is imperative to the survival of this area.” Like many business owners, he’s hoping The Water School will be the catalyst Southwest Florida needs to protect both the local environment and the local economy.
THE WATER SCHOOL BY THE NUMBERS
Year Founded: 2019
Year Building Will Be Completed: 2022
Graduate Degrees Offered: 2 (M.A. Environmental Studies, M.S. Environmental Science)
Undergraduate Degrees Offered: 3 (B.S. Environmental Geology, B.A. Environmental Studies, B.S. Marine Science)
Number of Faculty: 30 core faculty + 50 affiliate faculty from other programs or colleges
Number of Students: 516 (graduate and undergraduate)
Year of First Graduating Class: 2019
Money Allocated in the Latest State of Florida Budget: $3 Million