Smart Thinking

By Hannah Wallace March 31, 2008

As we talk about diversifying the economy, it would be smart to begin making the region’s colleges and universities part of the discussion.

Almost 19,000 students are enrolled in our 13 local colleges and universities. (See our directory in this issue.) Some—like New College of Florida, the Ringling College of Art and Design, FSU/Asolo Conservatory and Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine—attract students from around the country. And most of the others are highly regarded as well.

But how connected are these institutions to the business community? (Publisher Jeff Lawenda discusses USF’s involvement in this month's "Publisher's Memo.") I’m not just talking about asking schools to train our workers. I’m referring to the potential they have to help diversify our economy.

The region’s anti-growth sentiment, which is real, is not purely about the size of our population and buildings. It’s also a fear of growth without quality and meaning. We all know by now that just building houses and filling them (or hoping to fill them) with people doesn’t necessarily strengthen our economy or add value. And our residents, who tend to be educated, affluent and cultured, will not welcome heavy industry when they moved here to escape congestion and pollution.

But our communities do value intellectual capital. I thought about that when New College and Sarasota County recently hosted a symposium to discuss alternative and renewable energy solutions. The most exciting idea: creating a Center for Alternative Technologies here, a public research institute that will attract intellectual talent and spawn new businesses. Republican State Sen. Mike Bennett and Democratic State Rep. Keith Fitzgerald have jointly introduced a bill to obtain $2 million in seed money to get it started in Sarasota. “It’s the perfect thing” for our region, says Fitzgerald. Citizens who are concerned about quality of life would be likely to get behind this sort of economic growth because it matches their values.

There’s more. USF and Mote Marine Laboratory are working to create an ocean research institute here, and Mote has requested $10 million in startup funding from the state. Mote’s executive director Kumar Mahadevan sees it as “an investment in continued economic strength in the sciences” and a way to attract top talents here.

Meanwhile, the Roskamp Institute is working with the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine and New College so gifted scientists can earn a fast-track Ph.D. in neuroscience as they research cures for Alzheimer’s and other brain disorders.

Such projects don’t happen overnight, cautions Manatee’s economic development chief, Nancy Engel. They take funding, business savvy and patience. But the ideas are promising enough that it’s time to study the possibilities.

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