- Associated Press - Sunday, November 2, 2014

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) - Students living in the residence halls on campus at the University of Florida cannot operate a business out of their dorm rooms. Can’t have FedEx trucks coming by to pick up packages. Can’t have supply trucks dropping off supplies. Can’t build prototypes in the community room.

A new residence hall being built two blocks east of campus will allow all that and more. In fact, entrepreneurs and startup businesses are welcome.

Infinity Hall, a first-of-its kind public-private partnership between the University of Florida and Signet Development, will have dorm space for 308 students to live, eat and sleep, and another 20,000 square feet of space for them to pursue their projects.

It’s also the first privately funded project in Innovation Square and the first privatized dorm at UF. The five-story, 97,000-square-foot dorm’s $23 million cost is being footed entirely by Signet, which also put together the design and construction team. It’s also an economic development project for the city of Gainesville that will go back on the tax rolls.

“Signet is the first private-sector partner we’ve had,” UF President Bernie Machen said.

The residence hall project has special significance for Machen, who is stepping down as UF’s 11th president in December. “It is probably my last project to start as I go walking out the door,” he said.

But it also represents a huge shift in the relationship between UF, the city and county, and private partnerships, he said, anticipating more projects of its kind to come.

When the building opens next August, Signet will continue to manage the facility operations, and UF Housing and Residence Education will manage occupancy and collect rent from the students who move into the dorms, provide staffing, supervision and programming to support what UF is calling an “Entrepreneurial Living Learning Community.”

Signet’s development portfolio includes $3.8 billion worth of projects over the past 17 years, according to the company’s presentation to the Community Redevelopment Agency. Signet has built several university residence halls, including three at the University of Akron.

When UF sold the property to Signet, “we said your development agreement is you have to build an entrepreneur’s dorm. You can’t just go and build anything,” said Ed Poppell, director of UF Development Corporation and Innovation Square.

“Housing will assist in making it look and feel like a UF property, but it’s not,” Poppell said. “UF has no risk, no money in the deal. UF is managing it and getting paid to do it. We’re not aware of any other agreement like it.”

Of equal significance, Infinity Hall is the first building to be constructed since the 48,000-square-foot Innovation Hub was completed in 2012 for $13.2 million ($8.2 million Economic Development Administration grant and $5 million from UF).

Innovation Hub is the catalyst for the 40-acre Innovation Square - a sprawling zone that occupies much of the real estate between UF and downtown Gainesville, encompassing Ayers Plaza and the site of the old Alachua General Hospital at its core.

If Innovation Square is meant to be a bridge between UF and the business community, then Infinity Hall is seen as a key component linking UF and the Innovation Academy as the spawning ground for entrepreneurs who will interact with the Innovation Hub as a spawning ground for startup businesses.

And it’s going to provide extra beds to meet the growing demand. UF has 9,500 student residents and turns away 500 to 1,000 each year, said Norb Dunkel, UF assistant vice president and director of housing. The idea is the dorm would be open year-round to support the Innovation Academy, he said.

Initially, all undergraduates from all academic disciplines and majors can ask to opt into the space as part of UF’s standard application and contracting process, said T.J. Logan, associate director of administrative services,

“While Innovation Academy students will play an important role in occupying the building, we know that entrepreneurship takes many forms and comes from many disciplines,” Logan said. “As the program in the building develops, we anticipate that high demand will necessitate a selection process that could include elements like a formal business plan.”

So far, students are showing a high level of interest in the new residence hall, Logan said.

“This building is so unique, and for many students this represents an opportunity to experience college in a way that is not available at other institutions,” Logan said.

Those unique features encompass 20,000 square feet of space - 20 percent of the building’s floor space - that will not be generating rent revenue, Poppell said. “That is unheard of.”

It will have offices, collaboration lounges, design and prototype space, and a 3-D printer. The university will supply materials such as resin, metals and ceramics - and equipment such as high-powered waterjet cutters to fabricate the materials, and classroom space for Innovation Academy students.

“If someone comes up with a great business concept, we will give them the space to do that,” Poppell said.

The residence hall’s proximity to the Innovation Hub is also expected to provide opportunities for students to interact with entrepreneurs, CEOs and venture capitalists already in the game.

“This is so synergistic, the fact we are going to have 300 of the brightest minds from across all disciplines demonstrating an entrepreneurial bent kitty-corner from the Hub,” Innovation Hub Director Jane Muir said. “We are looking forward to opportunities to have students come across to the Hub to meet with the entrepreneurs there, the startup businesses.”

Anthony Manna, chairman of Signet, said his company has built a lot of projects in the U.S. and around the world, but he is most excited about this one with UF because it represents the “full fruition of the company’s entrepreneurial ideal, its vision and its commitment to public/private partnerships.”

“Universities across the United States will look at Infinity Hall as a benchmark for living learning centers,” Manna said.

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Information from: The Gainesville (Fla.) Sun, http://www.gainesvillesun.com

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