Unanimous decision: Palm Beach County, city approve plans for UF campus near downtown

Unanimous decision: Palm Beach County, city approve plans for UF campus near downtown

WEST PALM BEACH — In back-to-back, unanimous votes, commissioners in Palm Beach County and West Palm Beach approved preliminary plans to have the University of Florida open a campus near downtown, a move supporters described as “historic” and “transformative.”

City commissioners approved the idea on Monday night. County commissioners followed up with their own approval on Tuesday morning.

UF President Kent Fuchs attended both meetings, praising the university’s expansion plan as an opportunity to offer graduate school offerings that will be taken by students who eventually start businesses and occupy high-level jobs brought to the area.

Fuchs told city commissioners Monday night that the expansion represented a “once-in-a-century opportunity for our state, for West Palm Beach and for the University of Florida.”

He laid out an aggressive timeline that would have the university leasing space downtown in fall 2022 and opening a new campus there in the fall of 2026.

Securing the downtown West Palm UF campus

While the back-to-back votes serve as a resounding endorsement of the idea of UF expanding into West Palm Beach, they don’t encase the plan in concrete.

West Palm Beach’s vote declared about 2.23 acres of land on seven parcels it owns off Tamarind Avenue and Fern and Evernia Streets as surplus.

Collectively, that land has an appraised market value of $4.8 million, according to Palm Beach County Property Appraiser records.

City commissioners voted to give that land to UF for free if the university got nearby land from the county and from real estate developer Jeff Greene.

Efforts to reach Greene for comment were unsuccessful, but city officials said they had spoken to all parties regarding the proposed expansion and that the feedback was positive.

The county owns about five acres on Government Hill downtown that’s worth $12.9 million.

County commissioners voted to give that land to UF for free if the school agreed to use it for educational purposes only.

Combined, the public owns $17.7 million in land that would be given to UF for the downtown expansion.

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Formal agreements to turn the land over to UF have not been finalized. But the expansion plan is moving ahead at warp speed with the rapturous approval of local elected officials, who view the move as an irresistible opportunity to enhance educational opportunities and boost economic development.

“The University of Florida deserves a city and a county and a community that is excited about its achievements and excited about what it can bring to this community,” said County Mayor Dave Kerner, who conceived of the idea of having UF expand into West Palm Beach after learning that Fuchs led a similar urban expansion when he was provost at Cornell University in New York.

Palm Beach County’s current higher educational institutions argue that they fit that description.

Neither Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach nor Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton have spoken out against UF’s expansion plans. But they haven’t waxed poetic about them, either.

During the City Commission meeting on Monday, a PBA board member read a long letter from the school’s president, Dr. Debra Schwinn, who said “we look forward to hearing more about any university being considered for our region, specifically how PBA can partner to bring the best education possible to WPB/PBC.”

Schwinn also issued city commissioners an invitation — and a reminder.

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“We hope the city of WPB and Palm Beach County will appropriate and invest in local institutions such as PBA if incentives are offered to external entities, especially given PBA is the downtown education partner who has helped build our downtown area into what it is today and (is) helping to create a new tomorrow.”

FAU, in a statement emailed to The Palm Beach Post on Tuesday, issued its own reminder to elected officials.

“Florida Atlantic University offers a wide array of first-class degrees at all academic levels,” the statement read. “The university already serves thousands of students from the West Palm Beach area and is fully equipped to expand as necessary to meet increased demand.”

Several economic development backers have said businesses have long wanted West Palm Beach to expand educational opportunities in the city.

Raphael Clemente, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority, told city commissioners Monday night that businesses had expressed the need for broader educational opportunities “time and time again” and that what was needed was “a top-level education institution.”

“And that is now on our doorstep,” he said.

On Tuesday, Fuchs sought to reassure county commissioners that the university would work to partner with, not overshadow, existing universities in Palm Beach County, noting that state leaders need to “grow the pie” for higher education dollars.

“We’ll be the best partners that (FAU President John Kelly has) ever had,” Fuchs said. “That’s a really sincere commitment because we’re not going to be successful if we’re not a good partner. We want to add value for them as well as for the community. We’re not here to compete.”

That seemed to mollify County Vice Mayor Robert Weinroth, who represents the district where FAU is located.

Weinroth said that some had told him the embrace of UF’s expansion plan was a “slap in the face.”

“I’m very happy to hear what you said today, that this is a collaborative effort, that you’re not going to be the big boy trying to push the youngsters out of the way,” Weinroth told Fuchs.

County, city officials say area will benefit greatly from UF campus in West Palm

UF is “assuming oversight” for Scripps Research Institute in Jupiter. That move isn’t connected to the university’s downtown expansion plan, said Fuchs, who described the deals as “coincidence” but “a positive benefit together.”

The prospect of having UF bringing a graduate school campus to West Palm Beach left city and county commissioners giddy.

“This is really a no-brainer for us, and I’m just excited for you to come here,” said County Commissioner Maria Marino, whose district includes northern Palm Beach County. “The opportunity for you all to do what you’re going to do with Scripps is very exciting for our end of the county.”

City Commissioner Christy Fox was similarly enthusiastic on Monday night.

“I am thrilled by the opportunity and will do anything to move this forward,” she said. “We will be attracting students from all over the world. Thank you for thinking of us. This is just very exciting.”

West Palm Beach Mayor Keith James, who joined with Kerner in meetings with Fuchs when the plan was still at the idea stage, said the city stands to benefit in numerous ways.

“To have an educational institution of the caliber of the University of Florida located in our downtown will benefit the economic landscape of this city for years to come,” the mayor said, adding that students “can now put West Palm Beach on their list to get the kind of jobs and educational opportunities that they want.”

County Commissioner Mack Bernard, whose district includes downtown, said UF’s expansion plans have broad ramifications.

“It’s about the future for Palm Beach County,” Bernard said. “This is about the kids that haven’t been born yet. This is about the state of Florida.”



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