According to a recent Brookings Institution report on innovation and placemaking, employment hubs in downtown cores that drive universities, venture capitalists and investors, firms, entrepreneurs, research labs and independent creators are strengthened by geographic proximity to one another. These hubs – known as innovation districts – are key drivers of economic development and talent attraction and retention for cities.
Universities supply valuable research, innovation and future workforce that spur growth for communities, existing companies and startups building on existing urban assets and infrastructure for a healthy economy.
Following suit, higher education is playing a significant role in the economic revitalization of downtown Jacksonville. Three Northeast Florida colleges – Florida State College of Jacksonville (FSCJ), Jacksonville University (JU) and University of North Florida (UNF) – have expanded their offerings in the city’s urban core and are committed to supporting workforce development in the region.
As Maria Pellegrino-Yokitis, JU’s director of Planned Giving stated at a recent symposium on the growing trend of downtown higher education presence, “The health of any great city is dependent on a thriving downtown campus. Our downtown is filled with great leaders and great businesses and we want to be part of that energy.”
JU found many of its students were already residents in the urban core due its proximity to its main Arlington campus across the St. Johns River from downtown. As a result, the university, which has also been involved in community renewal and revitalization in Arlington, wanted to reengage its presence downtown.
Providing undergraduate and post-graduate courses for students at the SunTrust Tower on South Laura Street, JU’s downtown campus is aimed primarily at working adults enrolled in professional programs, offering high-quality university education unconstrained by bricks and mortar, geographic proximity or traditional classroom hours. Coursework is also available for traditional students. The downtown campus has been so popular that the university is planning future expansion.
As an innovation district, downtowns are viewed as hotbeds for startups and entrepreneurship. UNF is setting up classrooms and opening its Center for Entrepreneurship on two floors of the Barnett Bank building that is being restored downtown.
Projected to open in January 2019, UNF will offer master-level classes along with opening the entrepreneurship-focused center, which is expected to bring together all colleges at UNF to give up-and-coming entrepreneurs from all disciplines a place to test their ideas through the initial vetting stage. It will also give UNF students a chance to work side-by-side with already successful entrepreneurs in the market.
“The goal is to create and build a thriving ecosystem that supports entrepreneurs and helps them pursue and achieve success in Jacksonville and North Florida by connecting ideas with a support structure of talent, expertise and capital,” said Dean Mark Dawkins of UNF’s Coggin College of Business.
Innovation also thrives in downtown universities in areas of the creative space. FSCJ recently opened its culinary arts café in the historic Lerner Building on West Adams Street. The student- and staff-operated farm-to-table restaurant, 20 West, which opened to the public earlier this year, showcases FSCJ students’ culinary talents and provides valuable real-world learning opportunities through the college’s Culinary Arts and Hospitality program.
In addition to the restaurant educational experience, the school is also in the process of renovating the five floors above the restaurant to provide downtown housing for students at any of the school’s campuses. FSCJ’s commitment to downtown’s revitalization efforts by expanding its downtown presence is tactical for both the students and the city’s economic health.
“FSCJ’s Downtown Immersion effort was inspired by the desire to provide a more inclusive and comprehensive experience for our students, while contributing to economic development,” said Marie Foster Gnage, FSCJ’s VP of institutional effectiveness.
Downtown revitalization and economic development is driven by the strategic interplay between FSCJ, JU, UNF and the Northeast Florida business community. Their partnership and commitment demonstrates the positive impact of higher education in the urban core.