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New College Land Deal: Politics or Public Interest?


Last week, TBT reported on the Manatee County Commission’s plan to gift nine acres of bayfront property to New College of Florida after having promised it to USF, whose campus is adjacent to the land. The latter had planned to use it for dormitories as it continues to expand four-year degree programs at the campus. What has unfolded since should warrant closer scrutiny to ensure that three institutions in which the public has an interest—USF Sarasota-Manatee, New College, and the SRQ airport—are receiving equal consideration.

In February 2020, Manatee County promised the land (adjacent to the Crosley mansion) to USF, which was in the process of adding on-campus housing for its growing Sarasota-Manatee campus. However, the county quickly and quietly made an about-face recently that saw commissioners vote last week to move forward with a plan to instead give it to New College, the state’s small honors college, located just south of Manatee in Sarasota County.

County staff told the board that negotiations for development with USF fell apart this summer, but did not offer additional details. Officials at USF say the item’s appearance on a meeting agenda was the first word they got that the deal was dead.

As noted in previous reporting, New College currently leases its east campus—which includes dormitories and a conference center—from the Sarasota International Airport. That lease runs out in 33 years, and the airport has long warned the school that it would not renew the lease if it looked as though it would require the land for future growth. Given SRQ's record-breaking growth in the past three years, that outcome has seemed all but inevitable. Most of the dorms on the east campus are dilapidated, and New College has been understandably reluctant to invest in new infrastructure on land that it may not occupy a few decades down the road. At the same time, the school’s master plan never seemed to consider that the airport property might eventually be unavailable.

Initial speculation suggested that the gifted property might be an effort to help the school plan for such an event. However, it now seems that SRQ is going to sell New College most of that east campus land as part of a land swap that will see the airport get some smaller parcels west of that site that SRQ says it can use for future airport development.

All of this might sound good until you look at the players and incentives involved and ask whether this is the best overall outcome for the community, especially its airport, or just a bunch of political machinations.

New College already faced significant land use challenges before Gov. Ron DeSantis made it a pawn in his war on woke. Plans to add a whole bunch of intercollegiate sports and their respective scholarship athletes to an honors college that had prided itself on being a deliberately small liberal arts school will necessitate more growth. That fact has only intensified those existing challenges. As such, it would be prudent to ask what is to be gained by further complicating the situation.

New College and USF-SM are both hemmed in by Sarasota Bay on one side of their respective campuses and SRQ on the other. The nine acres from the county would have gone a long way to solving the future growth problems of USF-SM. Given the fact that New College will no longer have to worry about losing its east campus when its current lease with SRQ expires, one has to wonder what the impetus could be to give a school in Sarasota County land that had been promised to one in Manatee, especially when the land in question is adjacent to the USF-SM campus and separated by residential development from New College.

We got that answer on Wednesday when Manatee County Commissioners gathered to dedicate a south county dog park in honor of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. While fawning over the governor so profusely that it was surprising his words were not muffled by the target of his distinctly brown nose, Manatee County Commission Chair Kevin Van Ostenbridge said the following:

"We love New College, but, the truth is, New College got off the rails. It became a liberal indoctrination mill until Gov. DeSantis realized it and put a stop to it, and stepped up, and said that we're not gonna brainwash these kids anymore. We're going to give them a solid education, not one that shames America, not one with CRT, but a solid conservative education, and that's why we're so proud that that's happening in Manatee County that your county commission just donated nine acres of land to expand the New College campus into Manatee County."

Was USF-SM perhaps not solidly conservative enough for Van Ostenridge and company, or was it a just chance for low-level Republican elected officials to curry favor with a governor who is also running for president?

The airport authority is stacked with politically connected figures, including Van Ostenbridge’s chief campaign benefactor, developer Carlos Beruff, as well as Bob Spencer, the publisher of a right-wing blog that seems to exist primarily to fawn over Van Ostenbridge and other developer-funded officials while defending unsustainable development practices. Even Rick Piccolo, President and CEO of SRQ, has a son, Thomas Piccolo, who is Anthony Pedicini’s partner at the political consulting firm SIMWINS, where the firm's website says he's worked since 2009. SIMWINS represented the entire Manatee County Commission when it was seated following the 2022 elections. Can citizens trust that the airport authority is doing what's best for SRQ, or is it all simply political horse-trading without much long-term vision?

On the New College side of the ledger, DeSantis recently stuffed the college’s board of trustees full of political allies who then hired former Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran as the school’s president. Just recently, they agreed to pay him up to $1.2 million annually if he hits certain metrics, one of which is growing the student population to 1,200 students enrolled (nearly double its historical number) by his fifth year.

That would make Corcoran one of the highest-paid university presidents in Florida's state university system, even though New College is its smallest school. For reference, former Republican Senator Ben Sasse, who is now President of the University of Florida, has a compensation package worth around $1.3 million. Former Florida Senate President Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton) is the New College Board of Trustees’ legal counsel. This week, Beruff and Galvano were hosts for an expensive local fundraising dinner for DeSantis’ presidential campaign.

What is the point of expanding a Sarasota college into Manatee County when the neighboring state university on our side of the county line is already pressed for space? It’s also worth wondering how much difference will remain between New College and schools like USF as the former continues to be stripped of the distinct identity that has always set it apart. These are conversations that are not being had—at least publicly—which lend additional credence to what Van Ostenbridge implied this week: We gave it to New College because the governor is forcing them to be more politically aligned with your county commission and we hold that above all else.

The part that likely went unsaid was that his bosses—and I don't mean the citizens of Manatee County—pulled the strings attached to his oversized sport coat and told him that this was the way it was gonna be.

Dennis "Mitch" Maley is an editor and columnist for The Bradenton Times and the host of our weekly podcast. With over two decades of experience as a journalist, he has covered Manatee County government since 2010. He is a graduate of Shippensburg University and later served as a Captain in the U.S. Army. Click here for his bio. His 2016 short story collection, Casting Shadows, was recently reissued and is available here. 


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  • san.gander

    Politics of course, not in the Public interest.

    Sunday, October 22, 2023 Report this

  • Cat L

    The BS "war on woke" marketing strategy is having the very real effect of intensifying polarization here. Humans hang on to things, endlessly, and nothing will destabilize a country faster than turning some of the people against others of the same country. Making up evils and then acting on them.... Devastating communities all along the way. But as long as they get their sound bites .....

    Sunday, October 22, 2023 Report this

  • jimandlope

    First of all what does Kevin Van Ostenbridge know about college? His statement that New College is being forced by DeSantis to be more politically aligned with the Manatee County Commission says it all. That’s how you determine a college’s value?

    Now that DeSantis and his cronies have completely eviscerated a fine college what is the point of having two separate colleges literally right next to each other? Very shortly they will be identical institutions with separate (very expensive) administrations. Separate athletic institutions. Separate biased curriculum. Maybe Van Ostenbridge wants to name the two colleges Beruff and DeSantis. And just maybe you can’t gain admission unless you are Republican? James Tierney Bradenton

    Sunday, October 22, 2023 Report this

  • rayfusco68

    Oink, oink, oink, pigs at the trough! The destruction of a highly acclaimed small college gem for the feeding of his political cronies. Obviously this is another knee jerk decision by DeMousealini to award large salaries and create a fascist training ground for his base. Hopefully the next governor will undo this debacle and merge what remains of the New College campus with USF and save the tax payers a bundle of ridiculous pork payouts.

    Sunday, October 22, 2023 Report this