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Wednesday July 23rd 2014

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UWF’s Big Deal Idea


By Jeremy Morrison

When Judy Bense talks about the future of the University of West Florida, her voice punches the words with excitement. She’s ready.

The UWF president believes the university’s best days are ahead of it, and she’s anxious to lead the charge into the horizon.

“I’ve always thought we were too small,” Bense said. “We were dangerously small.”

The school is currently updating its Campus Master Plan, which lays out a roadmap through the year 2021. UWF’s Board of Trustees approved the draft version of the plan in December, before trotting it out to the public during two public meetings.

After public input is gathered—and considered, this is only a draft—the finalized master plan will be put before the Board of Trustees. Once approved, the ball will get rolling pretty quickly.

“This is gonna happen sooner rather than later,” Bense said. “It’s going to be really interesting.”

The vision swirling in Bense’s mind involves a football stadium, student center, Greek village, commercial properties and residential expansions. She envisions a jumping business district on the edge of campus along Nine Mile Road and an Argonaut statue in the middle of a large grassy field near the stadium.

“People have been waiting forever for us to really be the economic driver,” she said.

These big-deal big ideas aren’t just in Bense’s head. They’re also on big, exciting architectural renderings.

James Barnett, associate vice president for UWF’s Facilities Development and Operations, pointed out various master-plan aspects on a series of renderings displayed on an easel. He described the new residential housing and a conference center, and the   possibilities for the mostly undeveloped western portion of the campus.

“If you’ll notice there are a number of darker symbols here,” he said, pointing to specific spots on the renderings, “one of these is a football field.”

The football stadium—and accompanying team—offers up a good representation of what Bense is looking toward. Such an institution could be a defining and unifying element for the university.

“We want to make this a little bit of a destination, not just a place to take classes,” the president said.

Specifically the master plan calls for the development of an enterprise zone along U.S. 90, a housing village and expansions on the main portion of campus. The plan aims to accommodate UWF’s growth for the next 20 to 30 years.

And, to be sure, Bense is counting on growth in the future. She’s expecting around 14,000 students to be in enrolled at the university by 2015.

“You can’t grow without students,” Bense said. “And when you have students, you have to grow your facilities.”

While an increased student population, and the development of university “assets”—like leasing property to commercial interests—will eventually translate into increased revenue for the university, such grand plans will also take a lot of money. At a time when the economic landscape has become a bleak expanse and traditional state sources have gone dry, UWF is having to rethink the game.

“No one’s coming out of this unscathed, it’s different,” Bense said. “We had to get used to the ‘new normal.’”

To that end, the university has created UWF Business Enterprise, Inc., a direct support organization that will allow the school to do more public-private partnerships. Private developers will build the facilities and lease them back to the university. Any profits on the commercial properties and housing will be shared.

“We have a whole new model,” Bense explained. “It’s a business model. We’re looking at the campus as a series of assets.”

UWF has brought aboard Matthew Altier to head up its new business enterprise organization. The feedback from the company who conducted feasibility studies for the university has him pretty psyched about the future.

“They said, ‘Oh my God, yes,’” Altier said.

Prior to coming to Pensacola, Altier was the CEO of University Enterprises, working for the California university system in Sacramento. After four years heading the $150-million, 400-company non-profit, he started up another company doing the same sort of work in New Jersey.

“This is why I asked Matt to join us,” Bense said. “This is his third rodeo, he’s worked out the kinks.”

Through this new business enterprise entity, Bense and Altier are hoping to foster a web of public-private partnership that will eventually play out into everything on the wish-list: the conference center, hotel, Greek village and, of course, a football stadium.

“All we’re introducing is practices that are used in other states,” Altier said. “It’s basically going to move to a business model.”

Bense said this ‘new model’ will allow for university expansions without relying on tuition fees or state money. She’s seems excited that current economic realities have forced UWF to explore a new way of doing business.

“Why hasn’t this been done before?” she asked. “Well, we didn’t really have the mechanism—we figured out how to do that.”

The new master plan calls for bold growth at the university. The president foresees private-public partnerships that will benefit both the university and the surrounding community—as well as being a “real plum” for contractors.

She’s hoping to jump UWF up to the next level, and believes the growth will be a plus for the entire region. The president said she wants to transform the school from a commuter college to a destination university.

“To a traditional campus,” Bense explained, “that is new and shiny and bright.”

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Enterprise Zone at East Entrance, along U.S. 90
After clearing 3.6 acres, there are plans to develop three to four restaurants, as well as a 125 to 150-bed hotel and up to 15,000-square foot conference center.
President Judy Bense would like to see the university’s various areas of study—such as hotel management or culinary programs—have a relationship with the commercial interest that set up shop in the enterprise zone.

East Village Development
In addition to a traditional Greek village—fraternity and sorority rows—there are plans for increased residential units overall. Currently, nearly 8,000 students live off campus—Bense would like to see some of them on the grounds.
Plans call for single and two-story units, both attached and detached. The housing will focus on graduate students, married students, military students and staff and will be residential in feel.

University Park
This is where the big, collegiate stuff comes into play—the “shiny and bright” as Bense put it. The president hopes these changes will help take UWF to the next level.
There are plans for four new buildings, including a 1,000-bed residential space, classrooms, offices and administration space and a new School of Allied Health and Life Sciences building.
Also planned, is a new 160,000-square foot university union and two parking garages, totaling 1,500 spaces.
And then there’s the stadium. The facility is slated to have 5,000 seats, a two-level press box, two practice fields, lighting, locker rooms and all the things one would think a stadium might have.
There’s also a multi-purpose events center planned. The 142,000-square foot center—also able to hold 5,000—would be suited for basketball.
Near the stadium, there are plans for an Argonaut statue overlooking a grassy plaza. Across the plaza, a 120-foot bell tower.