FGCU's Water School comes to life, opens to students later this year

Chad Gillis
Fort Myers News-Press

Greg Tolley worked out of a construction site pod when he first started teaching at Florida Gulf Coast University during the late 1990s. 

The school had just opened, and the fanciest structure on campus was a steel-reinforced, double-wide mobile home that housed the most elaborate science equipment in the San Carlos Park-Estero area. 

But a lot has changed in those two-plus decades. 

Wednesday Tolley opened the doors to FGCU's Water School for a media tour. The 114,000-square-foot four-story building will open to researchers and faculty soon and to students later this year. 

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This massive structure is the largest building on campus and will become the focus of the university's growing Water School. 

"They are small compared to this one," Tolley said while looking over campus from the fourth floor of the Water School. "This one is 18 feet per story, so it (looks) like a five-story building. There are 52 offices, so we have more than 50 faculty and staff moving in. So that frees up a lot of space on campus for others." 

FGCU recently hired a string of 10 Water School faculty in the past several weeks, and Tolley said FGCU plans to sign two more before classes start in the fall. 

Tolley said the school will continue to focus on local issues like red tide and blue-green algae outbreaks. 

"On a packed Wednesday there will be about 1,250 students in class with another 50 working in the lab," Tolley said. "We just reached 600 students this year and we have a five-year plan to grow that quite a bit." 

Greg Tolley, the Executive Director of the Water School at Florida Gulf Coast University displays . When Tolley first started at the University he was working out of a construction site pod. The new water school is 114,000 square feet and four stories.

The $58 million building has been years in the making, but the program sprouted long ago on what was then a small campus in the middle of what was a rural community. 

A massive atrium is home to a five-story piece of art that's focused on water (the piece isn't being shown to the public yet and was covered Wednesday).

"We've had the Water School since 1997 to a certain degree," Tolley said. "I've been doing plankton studies in Estero Bay since the 1990s. Part of it has been attracting other faculty and from there it grows and grows." 

Most of the classrooms will seat upwards of 72 students, and then there are laboratories, computer rooms, faculty offices and space for public meetings. 

Each floor has been created to give an oceanic atmosphere, from the sandy-colored walls of the first floor to the open-ocean blues of the top floor. 

"When everyone is all moved in and smiling it will be exciting," Tolley said while giving several media outlets a tour of the building Wednesday.

First-year master's student Ella Guedouar was on the tour as well, giving the student perspective on the school's newest keystone. 

"I'm stoked for the opening because I'm so excited to get more space," Guedouar said. "We're limited on space now and this gives us a new workspace and laboratory and place to work with the community." 

Guedouar said the building will also help the community by providing meeting spaces and the minds to lead Florida as it continues to face water quality challenges. 

"We tackle problems we see here in Southwest Florida and we can do that in a building that's focused on water quality," she said. "It feels groundbreaking to have our own building dedicated to water. Other schools have focuses on water but we have an actual water school, and that's gotten us a lot of attention already." 

Tolley said one of the university's next steps will be to develop a doctorate program in coastal watershed science and policy, which he said will be ready for applicants in 2024 or 2025. 

Connect with this reporter: @ChadEugene on Twitter.