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Related’s Stephen Ross Raising $300M To Lure Vanderbilt To West Palm Beach

South Florida’s elite gathered at the Palm Beach mansion of Related Cos. founder Stephen Ross Monday with a singular goal: raise enough money to lure an elite university to West Palm Beach

The Warren College residences at Vanderbilt University's Nashville campus.

Ross gathered members of South Florida's high society to meet with Vanderbilt University Chancellor Daniel Diermeier as Ross works to woo the Nashville-based college to West Palm Beach. The chairman of the New York-based development firm has secured $100M in donation commitments to help fund a Vanderbilt campus in the city, and he is looking to lock in at least $200M more, Bloomberg reported. 

The donations are contingent on certain conditions, including securing a site for the Vanderbilt campus that would host graduate business and computing programs, Bloomberg reported, citing anonymous sources. Early plans call for the campus to be built on vacant public land where the University of Florida had been exploring an expansion plan that ultimately failed. 

Diermeier also met with Palm Beach County officials this week to seek support for the project, Bloomberg reported. Mayor Maria Sachs told Bloomberg the school was “courting us, and we’ll see if they’re going to dance.” 

Raphael Clemente, executive director of the West Palm Beach Downtown Development Authority, told Bisnow Wednesday that his office hasn't been involved in the early planning, but it would welcome a Vanderbilt campus in the area. 

“What's not to like about having one of the top-ranked private universities in the nation, a top research school, located right here in the heart of our city?” he said. “That's a major opportunity for us to build on what's already fantastic momentum we have here.” 

The bid to bring Vanderbilt comes after the collapse of a years-long effort to open a 12-acre UF campus in the city. 

The school was slated to be built on 2 acres of city-owned land, 5 acres of land owned by Palm Beach County and 5 acres that would have been donated by Jeff Greene, a billionaire Palm Beach developer who owns several parcels in the area. 

The university, which has its flagship campus in Gainesville, was slated to open the campus in 2026, but the deal fell apart in October, in part because the university and Greene couldn’t agree on terms, including naming rights, for his land donation, The Palm Beach Post reported

It isn't clear if Greene’s land is part of the Vanderbilt proposal, which has yet to be formally submitted to the city or county government for review.

A Vanderbilt spokesperson said the university was “assessing an opportunity to expand Vanderbilt graduate programs in business and computing in South Florida” but declined to comment further. 

Related Cos. has had a West Palm Beach presence for decades. It announced plans for two 28-story condo towers in August.

Related Cos. has been investing in West Palm Beach for decades, including a 35-acre Downtown expanse of office, retail and residential buildings called The Square that it began developing in 2000 and has been repositioning since 2017. 

The developer has a 1.3M SF office portfolio and a 2.5M SF development pipeline in the city, Jordan Rathlev, senior vice president at Related Cos., said at a Bisnow event in December. The firm also announced its first condo project in the city in August, which will include two 28-story towers with units starting at $7.5M.  

A spokesperson for Related didn’t respond to Bisnow’s request for comment, but Rathlev said at the event that Ross’ vision for West Palm Beach is to make it “the model American city,” with new healthcare, affordable housing and educational offerings.

“We're in talks to bring charter, public and private schools to the market and higher education to the Downtown to be able to grow the local workforce,” Rathlev said.

Expanding higher education options has become a focus for elected officials across South Florida as the region looks to build on the pandemic-era momentum of high-profile companies building their presence in the region. 

South Florida firms created 15,090 tech jobs from 2018 to 2022, but the region had only 14,273 college graduates in tech fields from 2017 to 2021, according to a 2023 CBRE tech talent report

“The talent question continues to be the No. 1 driver of investment decisions by companies,” Rodrick Miller, the president and CEO of the Miami-Dade Beacon Council, told Refresh Miami in August.

“Education always comes up” in conversations with companies looking to expand in the region, the Downtown Development Authority's Clemente said. But he also highlighted the broader impact a college campus would have on West Palm Beach.

“Beyond just the business development opportunity and making us a more attractive place for top talent, the type of energy that a body of students brings to a city center is vital to certain types of growth and investment,” he said. “Those ground-floor businesses — places to socialize, restaurants, shops — all thrive on students.”