ST. PETERSBURG — With his graduation from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg only a month behind him, Mark Lombardi-Nelson began his first job with a local software company Monday, a feat the 21-year-old former student body president attributes to the connections he made in school. But even with myriad accolades, and situated amid a burgeoning downtown full of independently owned ventures, the 4-year-old USFSP College of Business was getting a bit crowded. Make that very crowded. “It’s pretty dreadful,” said Lombardi-Nelson, who graduated May 4 with a degree in entrepreneurship. “There’s no one place for the students to share or engage with each other. We’re all spread out, and I think that’s definitely caused the school not to reach its full potential even though we’ve done great things.”
But now, with a $10 million boost in the budget approved by Gov. Rick Scott this past week, and $5 million from last year, the downtown St. Petersburg campus is finally in position to forge ahead with the estimated $27 million project for a new College of Business building, first-year Chancellor Sophia Wisniewska. “I couldn’t be more excited to know they’ll get a new building,” said Lombardi-Nelson, who joined other students to lobby the Legislature for the $10 million. “I can’t say enough about how thrilled and grateful we are that this building will be a reality,” Wisniewska said. “I think on every level it was clear we’ve done a terrific job with the resources we had, but we could do and be so much more. As we talked with legislators and our own board members, it was clear we could improve retention and student success by offering our students the opportunity to work more closely with faculty in one place, under one roof.” If all goes according to plan, a four-story, 60,000-square-foot building could be under construction by December on a 2.5-acre vacant lot at Fourth Street and Seventh Avenue South, behind the school’s Piano Man Building at 301 Third St. S. Construction is expected to take 18 to 22 months, Wisniewska said. Building a permanent home for the college has been a priority for several years, not only to recruit students but also to house the existing brainpower, Wisniewska said. Classrooms for the approximately 1,000 undergraduate and 200 graduate students enrolled in the college, as well as the faculty offices, are spread among four buildings across the downtown campus. “I think it will also allow us to recruit students and faculty who will view this college and these programs in a better light than they already are,” Wisniewska said. “We’re very proud of the work our faculty has done to develop nationally recognized programs and win multiple competitions, but this would take us to a new level.” Though many details of the building have to be drawn, Wisniewska said it will include an entrepreneurship center and will be designed for both traditional classrooms and online enrollment. This fall, the university will go before the USF System’s Board of Trustees to seek approval for a master’s degree program in accounting, and hopes to add additional programs in the future. The economic roller coaster that has affected so many employees in recent years may be part of the reason St. Petersburg residents and business owners are so open to more business development, said Mo Venouziou, vice president of LocalShops1, a grass-roots coalition that works with the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce to promote about 300 member Tampa Bay area businesses. In the past five to 10 years, as more businesses have come in, living downtown has changed completely, he said. Neighbors are less likely to be retirees or criminals and more likely to be young artisans, professionals or families. The university’s success has become a key component in keeping that renewal going, he said. “St. Petersburg is really a great climate for starting a business, and many of the local businesses are very invested in the school’s entrepreneurship program,” Venouziou said. “There are tons of new businesses opening up all around Central Avenue, the area’s becoming completely revitalized and it’s creeping down to the south side of the city and really improving the area.” And creative startups in St. Petersburg are attracting national attention, even placing the city on The New York Times’ list of recommended places to visit in 2014. Last year, USF’s entrepreneurship program was named the “outstanding emerging entrepreneurship program in the United States” by the U.S. Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship. The university as a whole was named one of U.S. News & World Report’s “Best Regional Public Universities in the South.” Of the more than 12,000 business schools worldwide, USF St. Petersburg’s school is one of only 175 accredited by AACSB International – the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business — in both business and accounting. The College of Business is ranked 36th among the global top 100 schools for integrating issues of social and environmental stewardship into the MBA program. USF St. Petersburg is the only Florida institution on the list, compiled by the Aspen Institute’s Beyond Grey Pinstripes research survey. Students in the college’s entrepreneurship program have won the prestigious national Collegiate Entrepreneurs’ Organization Startup Simulation Challenge for the past three years in a row, and the program prides itself on not only “preparing students for jobs, but preparing students that create jobs,” Wisniewska said. To emerge from the shadow of its older sibling, USF College of Business in Tampa with 5,400 students, a visual presence is paramount, school officials said. And now that St. Petersburg College’s nearby downtown campus plans to open its own innovation and entrepreneurship center for technology businesses in August, time is of the essence. “If you know anyone who would like to put their name on a building for $5 million or on a college for $10 million, please send them my direction,” Wisniewska said.