FGCU hub supporters hopeful state will OK final project money

For three years, Florida Gulf Coast University's Innovation Hub has been little more than a plot of land and a vision.

Two years of gubernatorial funding vetoes — first by then- Gov. Charlie Crist in 2010, then by Gov. Rick Scott the following year — kept the planned renewable energy research park on hold past its anticipated fall 2011 opening.

But with the first $4.9 million of funding finally gaining approval from Scott in the last legislative session, FGCU officials and their partners are hopeful this might be the year the project gets off the ground. The university is requesting the state grant the remaining $7.6 million for the hub's research building this year.

The legislative session begins March 5.

"I think they're going to want to finish what they started with FGCU," said Rich Galvano, developer of the Innovation Hub, referring to the Legislature and governor.

Provost Ron Toll expressed similar hopes, although state funding for education construction projects has been predicted to be low.

"Since the governor supported the phase one money, we hope that the Legislature and the governor will support the phase two money for this year," he said.

Upon completion, the park will include a hub for businesses, a university research building and a solar energy field. Eventually, it is projected to support 6,000 direct jobs and 3,000 indirect jobs at nearby stores and restaurants, officials have said.

The setbacks in the project, envisioned by Galvano and former Backe Foundation president John D. Backe, haven't been limited to state funding. In September, the manager of a company set to build a biofuel facility at the hub was federally indicted on charges of misleading investors.

William Vasden, Jr. faces 30 counts of wire fraud and one count of making false statements. Galvano said he and Backe "stepped back from the plate" on the biofuel aspect of the hub after the experience, but believe it's still possible.

It was a bump on the road, he said.

"I guess that's life sometimes, and especially with this economy we've been through, it's not all roses for a project to get through," Galvano said. "You're going to get setbacks and hit hurdles."

The project has taken strides forward, too. Last year, the university named an eminent scholar to the Backe Chair in Renewable Energy, funded with a $1 million gift from Backe. Joseph Simmons, former head of the Arizona Research Institute for Solar Energy at the University of Arizona, arrived at FGCU last fall.

Since then, Simmons has been helping design the research facility and working with other faculty to create curriculum for graduate and undergraduate degrees in renewable energy engineering — the first of its kind in the country, he said.

"We're doing a lot of work on paper right now, but probably by spring, we'll be clearing the area; setting it up," he said.

Simmons also is testing solar panels to determine their value to the region and working on a concept to create a solar field that serves as a "showroom" for companies at the hub that use solar energy. More than 10,000 visitors pass through the University of Arizona's solar energy institute yearly, he said, and a similar concept could work here, too.

Although Florida is not seen as a hot-spot for renewable energy, Simmons said, that could change with more awareness and policy changes, bringing more companies to the area.

"The large amount of employment will be generated only if there's a major change in the state of Florida's attitude toward solar energy," he said. "Then if that happens, there could be a huge change in employment."

Florida has one major advantage.

"We have a lot of sun here," Simmons said. "So that's always a good thing."

The field has a huge potential for future growth. It saw 13.5 percent employment growth nationally last year, he said, and this area could have a bright future in it.

And the Innovation Hub has a major role to play in it, he said.

Simmons said he's convinced this year will be a positive one for the project. If the funding is approved, he expects the park to be up and running by January 2015.

"I can see a couple years from now, they will have so many different technologies testing here that people will fly here just to see what technologies we have," he said.

Galvano said the community and local legislators have long been committed to ensuring the project is completed.

"Without that, it could have been dead in the water years ago, with the first veto, but we were not going to let that happen," he said. "You're going to see this happen."

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