The College of the Florida Keys President Jonathan Gueverra remembers speaking to Rotary clubs and chambers of commerce in the Upper Keys roughly seven years ago. Entering as the college’s sixth president, he mentioned that the school was going to have a better facility in the Upper Keys.

“I had no clue how we were going to do it,” he said. “I just knew that, A, people weren’t getting what they really deserved, and, B, that there had to be a way to do that.”

Today, the college’s Upper Keys Center is in motion, thanks to a $16 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce, several million from local sources and the generosity of the Waterman family, who agreed to sell the old Shell World property at MM 106.4 at a price the college could afford. Demolition of the old store in Key Largo is underway, with the center slated to welcome students in summer 2021.

The new facility will replace the college’s increasingly limited space at Coral Shores High School and allow the college to double its capacity to serve more than 300 students annually.

“This has been a dream that’s been there way before I came to this college,” Gueverra said during a recent interview with Upper Keys Weekly. “We are now in position to make it reality. But it hasn’t come from just simply throwing out platitudes about the vision and future. It came from us doing some earnest searches. We scoured up and down the Upper Keys looking for space.”

The 2.12 acres will be home to a two-story, 38,000-square-foot facility that’ll accommodate community education, as well as workforce and apprenticeship training programs.

The college plans to expand five existing programs in the Upper Keys: nursing, emergency medical technician, marine environmental technology, public safety (law enforcement and corrections academies), and apprenticeships. In addition, the college plans to develop new programs there, including: marine resource management, paramedic, pharmacy technician, phlebotomy, and construction technologies.

“We’ll be able for the first time to offer programs in Key West in our Upper Keys facility and not have it cost us a whole lot more in time and effort and resources, because we should be able to attract people who want to go to school who aren’t from the Keys,” he said. “They might move from any other part from the state of Florida and move to Key Largo to attend classes. It’ll be a small enough campus that they’ll have the same sense of being that a student here has, where it’s small and we get to know who they are.”

With the facility, the college will expand its nursing program up to and including the baccalaureate. The college will also be expanding its apprenticeship program in carpentry, HVAC, electrician and plumbing.

Stephanie Scuderi, chair of the college board, said persistence, focus and determination were key ingredients in leveraging resources from the local community all the way to the federal government.

“While the board does not get involved in the day-to-day operations of the college, it’s fair to say this kind of opportunity doesn’t just land in one’s lap,” she said. “In 1955, the report, The Community Junior College in Florida’s Future, recommended a state plan that would provide 28 junior colleges located within commuting distance of 99 percent of the state’s population. This has been a goal for many years.”

Scuderi said the Upper Keys facility embodies commitment to the Keys community in its entirety, providing both academic and workforce programming in areas critical to the Keys’ growth.

“Our businesses, employers and residents will benefit from the availability of new and additional programming. Even our visitors may have opportunities to benefit from our exciting work that evolves from many of our existing partnerships that are already in place,” she said.

The Upper Keys Center will be more than a building, Gueverra said. It will be a center for partnerships and building the community. Ultimately, Gueverra said, the college would like to partner with entities like the Workforce Investment Board to help people go back to school, learn something new and get a better-paying job.

“We’d like them to occupy so that when people are unemployed and look for assistance, and they go to the workforce folks needing help, they don’t have to leave and drive to another facility,” he said.

With Mote Marine Laboratory a college partner, Gueverra envisions students working with scientists in the Keys who could have space in the center to teach classes.

The facility will be constructed as a category 5 building, and Gueverra said it could be a vital part when responding to emergencies.

“Should we have an Irma-type event, it’s one of your first buildings in the Keys,” he said.

Frank Wood, vice president for advancement and director for The College of the Florida Keys Education Foundation, said the facility will provide opportunities not just for students, but the community as a whole.

“We look forward to our foundation having a greater presence in the Upper Keys market as we raise the critical funds needed for operation and to make sure we can maximize our presence there,” he said.

At the federal level, the project received support from U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott. Rubio, who advocated for funds, said training and apprenticeship programs play a crucial role in preparing American workers for 21st century careers. Scott said the federal government’s $16 million investment means more opportunities for Florida families.

Gov. Ron DeSantis pledged when he took office that Florida will become the number one state for workforce education by 2030. With the investment in a new facility for the college, he said, training and apprenticeship programs will help fuel that goal.

The Upper Keys Center project is funded under the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018, in which Congress appropriated $600 million to the U.S. Economic Development Administration for relief and recovery as a result of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

Jim McCarthy is a Western New Yorkers who escaped the snow and frigid temperatures for warm living by the water. A former crime & court reporter and city editor for two Western New York newspapers, Jim has been honing his craft since he graduated from St. Bonaventure University in 2014. In his 3-plus years in the Keys, Jim has enjoyed connecting with the community. “One of my college professors would always preach to be curious,” he said. “Behind every person is a story that’s unique to them, and one worth telling. As writers, we are the ones who paint the pictures in the readers minds of the emotions, the struggles and the triumphs.” Jim is past president of the Key Largo Sunset Rotary Club, which is composed of energetic members who serve the community’s youth and older populations. Jim is a sports fanatic who loves to watch football, mixed martial arts and golf. He loves to hit the links and play some softball with his Make A Play team. He also enjoys time with family and his new baby boy, Lucas, who arrived Oct. 4, 2022.