Palm Beach Elite Are Raising Money to Lure Vanderbilt to Florida

By , Natalie Wong and Amanda Gordon | April 3, 2024

Wealthy Florida residents and developers are looking to raise at least $300 million for Vanderbilt University to build a sprawling campus in West Palm Beach.

Billionaire developer Steve Ross hosted a reception at his Palm Beach mansion on Monday for Vanderbilt Chancellor Daniel Diermeier. Roughly $100 million of the goal has been committed contingent on conditions being met including securing the land, according to people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named citing private discussions.

The Nashville university is exploring construction of a campus for graduate business and computing programs in West Palm Beach, an area transformed in recent years by an influx of wealthy residents and financial firms setting up outposts. Ross’s Related Cos. has played a major role in developing the downtown with new office and residential towers, while the 83-year-old founder is a prominent booster of the region.

Ross and Related declined to comment on the Vanderbilt effort.

The nascent plan calls for the school, founded in 1873 by railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, to build on vacant public land where the University of Florida tried — and failed — to develop a campus. Diermeier also met this week with Palm Beach County officials, including Mayor Maria Sachs, to seek support.

“Right now, they are courting us, and we’ll see if they are going to dance,” Sachs said in an interview. “I like the idea.”

Diermeier said in an interview that the school has been considering a second campus for about a year and he was approached by some alumni at a Vanderbilt football game to discuss the idea. Moving to Palm Beach would enable the university to capitalize on the migration of jobs to Florida, he said. It would focus on expanding the business school to double the size and add programs in computing-related fields.

“We would have a presence in a second high-growth market that is complementary to the strength we have in Nashville now,” Diermeier said.

Education has been a major sticking point for the wealthy — and increasingly younger — families moving to South Florida from New York, California and elsewhere. There aren’t enough elite private schools to educate the kids of high-earning workers migrating south with firms such as Goldman Sachs Group Inc., Blackstone Inc., and Ken Griffin’s Citadel. And the region lacks top-tier universities to build up the pool of talent to feed those firms over time.

“We have a need for additional investment in higher education,” said Gregg Weiss, a Palm Beach County commissioner who met with Diermeier and supports ceding county land to Vanderbilt for the new campus. “We’re growing fast, and there is a need to have that pool of trained talent and prestige.”

The campaign to lure the Tennessee school to West Palm began last year after the University of Florida agreement collapsed. Ross and Cody Crowell, a Vanderbilt alumnus who works with the Palm Beach real estate investment firm Frisbie Group, had been advocating for more investment in education across the region and the need for a top-tier private university.

“People already want to be in West Palm Beach,” Crowell said in an interview. “But we’ve hit this plateau where we need to invest in education and do so in a way where we can create this sustainable ecosystem for growth in our state.”

Crowell declined to comment on fundraising and other specific efforts to bring Vanderbilt to the area.

Vanderbilt is one of America’s richest universities, with an almost $10 billion endowment. It has more than 1,100 alumni in Palm Beach County and in the northern part of neighboring Broward County, according to the university.

Several business leaders have ties to the school and South Florida. TPG CEO Jon Winkelried, who has a home in nearby Hobe Sound, is the parent of three alumni and is a Vanderbilt trustee. Charles Schwab has a house in Palm Beach and a daughter who graduated from the school. Michael Bickford, founder of Palm Beach’s newest private club the Carriage House, is also a graduate.

Vanderbilt still has a long way to go in the complex work of building a campus almost 900 miles (1,450 kilometers) south of Nashville. It has yet to submit a formal proposal or seek necessary approval for such a major expansion from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

Topics Florida

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