Since welcoming its largest incoming class ever last fall — and anticipating continued growth —Saint Leo University will lease the Sweetwater apartment complex in Dade City, to serve as residential housing for upperclassman and graduate level students.
In August, Saint Leo will begin leasing all 176 units on the property owned by Beachwold Residential LLC, which sits about 2 miles northeast of the main university campus along State Road 52. The planned agreement was first reported by Bay News 9.
The university’s decision means that residents living at the property now — except for Saint Leo students — will need to move, and that has sparked criticism of the university by some of the current tenants.
When Saint Leo takes over, Sweetwater will become more than just run-of-the mill residence halls.
In an interview with The Laker/Lutz News, Saint Leo vice president of student affairs Dr. Jen Shaw said the property will be transformed into a “career-focused learning community,” whereby its clubhouse/community center will regularly host job fairs, workshops, alumni panels and so on. In addition to hosting employers to recruit Saint Leo students, workshops will have themes on job interviewing skills, salary negotiation, social media branding and more.
Shaw added that Saint Leo student activities staff will organize events at Sweetwater so students there “feel like they’re getting the same residential experience as students (on campus).”
Saint Leo will make a number of upgrades to the property, such as installing more security cameras, 24/7 security, card-only gate access, daily bus shuttles to campus, new, fully furnished living quarters and more.
“It’s a real neat, living, learning experience for students. We’re excited about it,” Shaw said.
The decision to lease the property comes as Saint Leo enters a student housing crunch.
The university this past fall welcomed its largest incoming group of students in the university’s 130-year history (1,001 new students). The school now has about 2,100 students on campus, plus more than 700 faculty and staff.
The record-breaking incoming class filled all of the university’s available on-campus housing this year, Shaw said. Since then, officials have scrambled to find more housing opportunities for students, looking at nearby hotels and other properties. She noted it takes about two years to build new on-campus residence halls, something she said the university plans to move forward with this summer.
After vetting several other housing options for the near-term, Shaw said leasing Sweetwater was “the best one for our students.”
“We can keep them safe and engaged, and it’s super close-by,” she said.
Sweetwater residents forced to move
As a result of Saint Leo’s action, apartment management will not renew leases for non-student residents.
Sweetwater resident Kori Warriner received a notice in her door a few weeks ago that informed her of the impending arrangement.
Warriner said she hadn’t intended to renew her lease, but she said many of her friends who have lived at Sweetwater for a long time did not plan to move, and there are others who are just starting families with newborns on the way — including one that just moved into the complex less than two months ago.
Warriner described the entire situation as “really rotten and wrong” and added that “a huge injustice (is) being done.”
“I can deal with it, but all these other people are going to be really, really put out,” she said.
That’s how Blane and Bronwyn McCullough feel. They’ve lived at the apartment complex almost six years and planned to stay a couple more years until retirement.
Instead, they have to move when their lease ends in September.
Bronwyn called that “really heinously unfair.”
“Everybody feels like the rug has been pulled out from under them,” she said. “I’m more disappointed than anything.”
Bronwyn said there’s a lack of available housing in Dade City, where her husband Blane works and where her mother is on home hospice care.
“Are we supposed to move to Wesley Chapel, New Tampa?,” Bronwyn questioned. “We’re Dade City people. There’s no other places in Dade City for us to rent from.”
Sweetwater residents question why Saint Leo had to take on such an influx of students, knowing it didn’t have sufficient available on-campus housing.
They suggest the university should have planned better — building additional student dorms before increasing enrollment.
Warriner put it like this: “They’ve got acres and acres and acres of land. They can wait two years (to enroll more students) for new dorms to be built. They do not need to kick a whole bunch of people out, with very little notice, that have lived (at Sweetwater) for years and planned to probably stay there forever.”
It’s a sentiment Saint Leo University sophomore Jalyssa Grajales sides with.
The student doesn’t live at Sweetwater, but thinks her university should have leased a portion of the Sweetwater complex to begin with, instead of the entire property.
Grajales said she feels bad for the families who live at the apartment complex, noting that’s their home and they don’t want to be “kicked out” to make room “for a bunch of students.”
Shaw said she understands Sweetwater residents’ frustration, but emphasized Saint Leo would not deny the opportunity to increase its enrollment like it has this year — which included a diverse population of different races, out-of-state and international students, first generation college students and so on.
“As an institution of higher learning and in the Benedictine tradition, we want to educate everybody that we can educate,” Shaw said.
She also observed: “I don’t know if we’d ever not grow if we had the opportunity to grow.”
The university official also said the leasing arrangement makes sense from a financial standpoint, pointing out some of Saint Leo’s values are “just to be fiscally responsible and just be smart about our students’ time and their safety.”
Shaw also said that Saint Leo’s growth has a positive impact on the area, as students commit to “hundreds of thousands of hours” of community service. There’s a lot of community people that come and benefit from our campus,” she said.
The university also has asked a Realtor it works with to assist Sweetwater residents to find new apartments or homes to rent in the area. Sweetwater’s community manager also has begun to assist with housing opportunities in Zephyrhills and along State Road 54, Shaw said.
Published February 26, 2020