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St. Pete investor, USFSP create forum for OPEN learning, sharing ideas

Much like open source software transformed the software industry, a St. Petersburg-based thought cooperative is poised to change people's lives through intellectual exchanges and collaborations in the greater Tampa Bay Area.

The cooperative is aptly called OPEN, the Open Partnership Education Network. It will be encouraging open sharing and innovation, while providing the tools that make it possible.

“In our current paradigm, the philosophy is closed and you work within your silos,” explains Walter Fernando Balser, OPEN’s Founding Director.

Similar to the collaboration spawned in the software industry by open collaboration on software like Wordpress, an open source publishing platform, OPEN looks to bring together people to share ideas. Some themes they are working with include seeds, future cities and radical schools.

“It’s revolutionary for the city of St. Petersburg, but it’s not revolutionary for other cities like Austin, Texas,” Balser asserts.

Themed events are more than interesting meetings where people can network, talk about interesting ideas and then go home and forget about it. “You have a framework in place that allows those thought leaders to continue to collaborate on the next experiences,” he explains.

The open framework for St. Petersburg could be shared very easily with any community, he adds.

OPEN evolved from an idea by Jim Aresty, a St. Petersburg transplant, who enjoyed the intellectual stimulation offered by the nonpartisan forum, the Aspen Institute in Colorado. A retired women’s clothing manufacturer, Aresty was a long-time resident there and frequent summertime visitor of the institute.

After he began spending the winter’s in St. Petersburg about three years ago, he became captivated. “I absolutely just fell in love with the city. First and foremost, I just love the people,” Aresty says. “It feels really Midwest to me, very uncompetitive, friendly.”

But he missed the institute while here.

“I want the community to be invigorated and enlivened and educated, in the hopes that it will improve people lives,” Aresty says.

He now splits his time between St. Petersburg and Aspen, spending seven months in St. Pete. And OPEN is off and running, expected to officially start themed discussions in November in connection with the city’s Et Cultura Festival featuring music, film and interactive culture. All thanks to contributions from Aresty.

Initially, he provided enough funds for a staff director for one year, expected to expire in July, with office space and administration provided by USFSP. Now he’s providing significant funding that can continue the endeavor for five years, after which it’s intended to be self-supporting.

OPEN is partnering with the USF College of Marine Science, St. Petersburg College’s Institute for Strategic Policy Solutions, Poynter Institute for Media Studies, Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital and Et CulturaIt plans to continue to grow its network.

Ultimately, Aresty believes St. Pete will be attracting more people like him: middle-aged and older folks with part-time residences here who want “to be inspired and to be invigorated intellectually, to be involved and to have ways to learn and to grow,” he says.

“I just thought it was a great way to give to my new city that I love,” he says.

Read more articles by Cheryl Rogers.

Cheryl Rogers is an editor and feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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