About the Institute
On April 17, 2012, Governor Rick Scott signed Florida’s budget, which included a $4.5 million investment for Tallahassee Community College to construct an environmental institute in Wakulla County, and the Wakulla Environmental Institute was born.
Modeled on the College’s successful Florida Public Safety Institute in Gadsden County, WEI was created to highlight Wakulla’s natural heritage and biodiversity and serve as an economic driver for the region which has been hit hard by both the Great Recession and deteriorating commercial fishing conditions including a failing oyster industry. It was quickly decided that the Institute would offer environmentally-focused degrees and certificate programs including programs in environmental science technology, hospitality and tourism, aquaculture management and agribusiness. With coastal tourism and recreation as two of Florida’s top ocean industries, the state’s investment in WEI would help produce graduates to work and innovate in these vital industries statewide. Former TCC District Board of Trustees member Dr. Allison DeFoor, who was chair when WEI was established, referred to the Institute as a “game changer.”
“This institute is a game-changer. It will combine Wakulla County’s world-class natural resources with TCC’s educational treasures and the results will be known around the world. A generation from now people will know this was done if we take up the challenge and do this right.” -Dr. Allison DeFoor
In less than a year, TCC worked to develop an implementation strategy, meeting with several state agencies and numerous businesses in conservation and recreation throughout the Big Bend. On April 1, 2013, TCC purchased four parcels of land from the Gaby family which totaled 158 acres off of Crawfordville Highway. The large, beautiful tract of land featured a sinkhole, wetlands and a natural bridge, and it would easily accommodate a world-class facility that could fulfill the Institute’s three-part mission of education, conservation and recreation. TCC President Jim Murdaugh touted the property, stating “the land we are acquiring isn’t just a place to build classrooms—the natural space of Wakulla is the classroom. That is what will make the Institute so special: the combination of TCC’s strong academic tradition with the biodiversity and natural resources of Wakulla.”
As WEI officially broke ground on April 15, 2013, College officials were also moving forward on many of the other initiatives outlined in the Institute’s plan. That spring, the Institute expanded the College’s offerings, rolling out a new Water Quality Technician Certificate and an Environmental Science Technology A.S. Degree.
Also that spring, WEI announced a partnership with Leo Lovel, owner and proprietor of Spring Creek Restaurant, to research and develop farmed oysters, a venture which according to WEI Director Bob Ballard would “revitalize the local oyster industry.” Later that June, the Florida Cabinet took notice, unanimously approving and allowing the Lovel family access to the full water column above their state-leased land, kicking their oyster farming venture up a notch and prompting WEI to move forward with a new certificate program that would train entrepreneurs in this new industry.
As WEI gained momentum, many outside of Wakulla and even Florida were taking notice. In May of 2014, the United States Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration announced a grant of $1.5 million to TCC for “core infrastructure improvements that will enable the construction of the Wakulla Environmental Institute.” Such improvements included upgrading utilities pipelines, surfacing parking lots, lighting the roadway and installing a multi-use trail for walking and bicycling around the property.
“The Obama Administration and Commerce Department are committed to supporting a talented and skilled workforce for today’s 21st century jobs. The EDA grant announced today will help Tallahassee Community College offer training in the growing green energy field.” -U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker
Read the U.S. EDA Press Release
Through our efforts in education, conservation and recreation, WEI plans to fully realize our vision to make Wakulla County a world-class destination. As the Institute moves forward, we will continue to be a good partner in the public and private spheres, we will continue to protect the extraordinary biodiversity our region is gifted with and we will continue to train the next generation of environmental professionals.