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Proposed Center for Real Estate Studies Broadens Scope of Education at the Muma College of Business

By Keith Morelli

Man speaking in front of classroom

TAMPA (October 11, 2019) -- With an ever sharpening focus on student success and a strategic plan to provide the tools graduates need to land well-paying jobs, the University of South Florida’s Muma College of Business is moving toward creating another center of excellence.

Under the Finance Department, the Center for Real Estate Studies, if approved by the state, comes at a pivotal moment for the Tampa Bay community, which is experiencing a surge in residential and commercial growth both in downtown Tampa with the Water Street project and in the suburbs that surround the Tampa Bay region stretching from Westchase to Fish Hawk Ranch.

Partial funding for the center already has been pledged by Strategic Property Partners, the group led by the partnership of Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and Cascade Investment, Bill Gates personal investment firm, who are spearheading the $4 billion Water Street Tampa project near Amalie Arena.

“The term ‘real estate program’ typically refers more to an academic program, but USF currently has what might be more correctly termed a ‘grass roots movement,’ which has largely been created by students,” said Greg Smersh, a finance and real estate instructor in the Muma College of Business since 2009.

In 2015, Smersh saw a remarkable increase in student interest in real estate careers, generated by guest speakers in his Real Estate Decision Making course.

“Although many people associate careers in real estate with home sales, sales are only a very small part of the industry,” he said. “Professional careers in real estate range from financial analysts, marketing specialists and property managers to dozens of other careers that are associated with the acquisition, development, leasing and management of real properties."

Around the same time he saw student involvement spike, Smersh noticed a significant surge in outside interest from a dozen or so professional real estate organizations in the Tampa area that sought more involvement with USF business students. In 2016, Smersh formed the Real Estate Society at USF.  With the help of highly motivated students such as MBA student Noah Shaffer, the student organization grew 350 members.

"I might have been the one who got this organization off the ground,” Smersh said, “but it was clearly Noah who took it to the 30,000-foot level by successfully establishing dozens of relationships with local real estate professionals and organizations."

Shaffer said Strategic Property Partners has pledged to financially support the Center for Real Estate Studies at USF on an ongoing basis and is encouraging other real estate businesses to do the same.

“The establishment of the real estate center requires engagement and widespread support from the real estate industry,” he said. “The benefit to the industry is that this will help fill the demand for real estate professionals, not only in Tampa, but across the nation and around the world. A huge talent gap exists due to the recession in 2008, when millions of people left the industry and never came back.”

With a dedicated student organization in place, an advisory board was formed in 2017 and a Finance Department undergraduate concentration in real estate was created in 2018.

“The efforts to grow real estate education at USF and in Tampa Bay have been blessed by motivated and driven students,” Shaffer said. “These students are willing to volunteer and go above and beyond what is required to maintain a high level of interest in the industry and among students.”

The Real Estate Society at USF arranges corporate tours, workshops and various networking events, but both Shaffer and Smersh agree that the organization has grown to a level where a more formal structure – a center – was needed to organize the development of educational coursework, case studies for students, internships and corporate engagement.  Following the successful development of the Center for Real Estate Studies, the natural next step would likely be the implementation of a real estate major.

That means more of an academic focus on real estate, and this could give USF the opportunity to emerge on the cutting edge of an industry that largely has lagged behind on technical advancements – in some cases – years behind other industries.

“There are significant opportunities for USF becoming the cutting-edge thought and innovation leader to alter the course of the Tampa Bay region,” Smersh said, “and perhaps impact the real estate industry at a global level.”

Real estate companies are in need of graduates who possess a baseline knowledge of real estate, Smersh said.

“Graduates often are expected to move into positions with real significant job responsibilities within those organizations and may be expected to hit the ground running,” he said. “The benefit of developing a real estate center at USF, to companies in Tampa, is that they will have the opportunity to work with students year-round during their collegiate careers and a well-organized real estate center will identify the talent and place that talent where it is needed by real estate companies.

The Real Estate Society of USF already has two corporate tours planned for this semester. The first is with the Westshore Marina District, an impressive new master-planned community overlooking Tampa Bay in the Westshore area, and the second is at the Armature Works, a fully restored mixed-use building in the historic Tampa Heights neighborhood.

“The Tampa market is ripe for this type of innovation,” Smersh said, “with the Strategic Property Partners’ Water Street Tampa development, which represents a significant investment with more than 9 million square feet of new commercial, residential, hospitality, cultural, retail and educational space.”

This semester, Strategic Property Partners is sponsoring a case study involving Sparkman Wharf, with a $5,000 prize to the top student team from USF, Smersh said. Though the case kickoff took place earlier this month, club leaders said that interested students can still get involved. Any students interested should contact Jason Banky and Elvins Derisma. For more information about the Real Estate Society at USF, click here.

“The primary task of the Center for Real Estate Studies is to provide value to the students of USF through an education that will enable them to be better prepared for the professional world after college,” he said. “This platform provides students with a first-hand overview of some of the latest and most innovative real estate deals in the area.”