Florida Polytechnic University President Randy Avent not only has a vision for the university he’s overseen for five years, but for the surrounding area.

The area adjacent to Florida Poly’s Lakeland campus, which includes Auburndale, Polk City and unincorporated Polk County, could transform into an innovation district, where students and professors research the technology of tomorrow in partnership with businesses that are attracted to the area to tap into the knowledge and youth of the energized workforce.

Dr. Avent saw education, government and business — the triple helix — bond before, when he was associate vice chancellor of research and a professor of computer science at Centennial Campus at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

“Today’s problems are complex and multi-dimensional, and economies grow most significantly when they bring government, industry and academia together to solve problems and commercialize those solutions,” he said. “This is exactly what we’re hoping to do with the proposed research park. Having a research park adjacent to our campus within an innovation district will be the catalyst for bringing much needed facility and financial capital to this area. It will be a place of creative collisions, a live-work-play environment and a magnet for industry. I believe this is the key to changing the economic landscape of our region.”

Avent’s vision prompted the Central Florida Development Council to lead a mission to Centennial Campus so community leaders from around Polk County could better understand what the future here could look like.

“The visit did what it was supposed to do: Highlight the close interaction between NC State and industry at Centennial Campus,” said CFDC President and CEO Sean Malott. The development of the campus “was a very intentional process; it didn’t just happen. NC State was there for decades before Centennial Campus. … There is a close interactivity between industry and education. It’s a great place to attract and retain talent.”

Todd Dantzler, chairman of the CFDC board, said attendees left Raleigh understanding the vision. “Everyone probably had a different idea of what a research park looked like. I see research park and think business park. This is a great innovation — university campus and business — and that’s what I think we really want to get to for a research park at Florida Poly.”

Centennial Campus differs from other research parks, like those at the universities of Central Florida and South Florida, because everything is packed into a compact area. “Bandwidth (a technology business located in Centennial Campus) is literally across the courtyard from the business school. A student interning at Bandwidth just has to walk a few steps. You don’t even know you’re in the research park. It’s a continual collision of academia and industry. People working in businesses eat at the university cafe or food trucks. That’s where students are eating. If you work in the research park, you have a university pass to get into all the buildings. You can continue on with a company there and it’s like you’re still in college — if you like that environment.”

Avent says sharing the vision was critical. “The recent trip to Raleigh was an important step forward for the leadership within our county to come together to support a common goal. The creation of an innovation district in the area surrounding the university is a critical first step in moving the vision of a research park forward.”

Key Learnings from Raleigh

Malott said the creation of Centennial Campus was highly strategic.

“NC State is a mature university,” he said. “It has alumni, a real-estate department, a lot of things Florida Poly doesn’t have. The community will need to step in to fill those gaps. We can learn from others who have done it.”

Dantzler said he’s used to massive universities like the University of Florida and UCF. At Centennial Campus, “everything was very well organized, planned. There seemed to be a purpose for all buildings and how everything was laid out.”

Dr. Angela Garcia Falconetti, President of Polk State College, who also participated on the mission to Raleigh, said: “The integration between research at the university and business was rewarding to experience. Polk State College fosters such collaborations and can support the training needs of many employees and companies that move to Polk County in the future.”

What’s next?

Malott and Dantzler agree that education, industry and government all need to be moving in the same direction. That starts with “pulling together the communities that border Florida Poly and SunTrax — Lakeland, Polk City, Auburndale and Polk County — and creating an innovation district to help unify land use and inspire innovation,” Malott said.

SunTrax is a $42 million test track currently under construction. The first phase — a 2.25-mile track to test toll technology, among other things, and two buildings — is expected to open in the near future. The 200-acre infield being developed for autonomous vehicle research will follow shortly thereafter. The second phase is an additional $90 million investment.

“We have to secure land. Other than that, it’s just an idea,” Dantzler said. “We have to get creative between government and private sector.”

After they have the land, they have to start planning the campus. In North Carolina, the university had the backing of the governor, who provided many resources, Dantzler said. “It would be great if Gov. (Ron) DeSantis would make the same commitment. It would be nice to get an audience with him and talk about it.”

Recruiting partners and talent are also critical, “as well as to secure the public and private financial support to build facilities to serve as the hub for the innovation district,” Garcia Falconetti said.

Unlike some research parks that are 1,000 acres or more, local leaders are looking at a smaller footprint to get started, something to match the size of Florida Poly, which has about 1,500 students.

“What we envision is you graduate and get into tech jobs with companies that have a thirst for young, smart employees,” Dantzler said. “Bright young people stay in our community, and that helps everyone by lifting wages and quality of life.”

Garcia Falconetti said leaders in the county already have a strong foundation of collaborating. “In a region where (the) local economy is booming and economic development is ripe, Polk County is naturally growing as a hub for innovation, and an organized effort to capitalize on this exciting growth will allow our community to retain talent, recruit businesses, create jobs and promote our region – goals shared by all stakeholders.”

Education: Investing in the Future

Dantzler can already see the future. “Randy’s students will design it, Angela’s will build it and manage it,” he said.

Polk State College, which serves more than 16,000 students each academic year, offers associate’s and bachelor’s degrees that align with those at Florida Poly, such as engineering technology and supply chain management.

“Data shows that the college is successfully training students in these areas,” she said. “For example, the associate (of) science in engineering technology program boasts a 91 percent success rate that continues to increase with time.”

Surveys show students are learning the nuts-and-bolts skills, but also the “higher-level thinking abilities that allow them to keep up with technology and the ever-changing landscape of the workforce,” Garcia Falconetti said. “At Polk State, we are not only training students to meet the needs of today, we are developing the highly skilled workforce, professionals and leaders our community will need in the future to continue fostering innovation and economic development.”