Placemaking for a Better Tomorrow

Alissa VanDeman, WUSF Public Media

Lifelong Tampa natives Michael Paonessa and his husband, Robert Iles, are placemakers dedicated to building a better tomorrow.

Creative placemakers, like businessmen Paonessa and Iles, believe it is important to strategically integrate the arts and cultural activities into an area where people want to live, work and play—all in order to create a stronger sense of community.

As president of the Downtown River Arts Neighborhood Association for the past four years, Michael Paonessa serves as a voice for his community and focuses on placemaking as a means of enriching Tampa life.

The couple’s emphasis on strengthening the community is exemplified through their actions. Paonessa and Iles routinely invest their time, knowledge and resources to support impactful local organizations related to the arts, education and LGBTQ+-related causes.

At the University of South Florida, their commitment to the future takes shape as a $100,000 legacy gift to benefit USF Graphicstudio and WUSF Public Media.

“I’m a firm believer in the idea that ‘when you can, you should’ do things to make a difference,” said Iles. “You can’t take it with you. When we started thinking about legacy giving and the impact it can make, honestly and truly, Graphicstudio and WUSF were always at the very top of our list.” Added Paonessa, “Both are a natural fit. We are longtime collectors of art, and we are lifelong listeners to WUSF and NPR!”

Founded in 1968, Graphicstudio is a world-renowned atelier on the USF Tampa campus. The experimental studio empowers artists to work in a wide range of styles and media to produce limited-edition prints and sculptures. Michael and Rob’s personal art collection includes a number of works from Graphicstudio, where Iles serves on the community advisory board in addition to his other charitable work in the community.

Their gift will provide critical support for Graphicstudio’s operational needs, including the international artist-in-residence program, which brings leading artists to the Tampa Bay community.

As a service of the University of South Florida, WUSF is the flagship National Public Radio member station for west central Florida. Their gift to the station will establish the Michael Paonessa and Robert Iles WUSF Public Media Endowment to support NPR-type news and information programming in perpetuity. “I’ve been listening to WUSF since 1993,” said Paonessa, who works in management at USAA. “It’s been transformative on my life and Rob’s as well. It has opened up our understanding about the world around us.”

“The truth should be available to everyone,” adds Iles, a business consultant and managing director of Study Hall Research. “Listening to NPR through various administrations, I feel very strongly that NPR tells it like it is. You determine what you want to get out of it, but they’ve always done a very good job at delivering a detailed view exactly what’s happening locally, nationally and globally.”

The benefits of making a planned gift resonate deeply with Paonessa and Iles, both as placemakers and philanthropists.

“We’ve always been extremely passionate about the arts and public radio,” said Paonessa. “This is our opportunity to pay it forward and ensure the organizations we value remain and continue to benefit the community long after we are gone.”

And after spending so many years placemaking for others, Michael Paonessa and Rob Iles have made a place for themselves – at USF.

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