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Jeff Vinik, Joe Lopano tout their $1 billion projects at Tampa chamber

By Jeff Harrington, Times Staff Writer
Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano

TAMPA — It's not often the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce can tout a "surprise" guest speaker at its annual lunch who pledges to invest $1 billion in a local project creating thousands of jobs.

Let alone a pair of speakers, each with their own billion-dollar project on the table.

Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano fit the bill Thursday, telling a sellout crowd of 800 inside the Tampa Convention Center about their mega-projects.

Lopano is spearheading a $943 million airport renovation and expansion that includes construction of a milelong people mover and a huge rental car facility.

When he arrived in 2011, Lopano said, he saw a "moribund" place still trying to pull out of the recession, with falling passenger traffic and revenue, and "not a lot of stuff" happening. Now, he said, passenger traffic is up 8 percent over the past year; international traffic is up 50 percent since his arrival.

"We're a community changing in a very rapid fashion in a very good way," he said. "We've gone from the city of 'No We Can't' to the city of 'Watch This.' "

Vinik, capping a whirlwind week of presentations, showcased his vision of spending more than $1 billion to build nearly 3 million square feet of development along the city's waterfront.

The ambitious project, which could take up to a decade to complete, includes room for a new urban medical school, corporate headquarters, condos, a hotel, meeting space, shops and restaurants.

Vinik urged people to offer suggestions to help his group turn "40 acres of a blank campus in downtown Tampa" into a vibrant waterfront hub.

"We call it a vision plan," he said. "We're still learning."

Longtime Tampa developer Dick Beard, recipient of the chamber's H.L. Culbreath Jr. Profile in Leadership Award, took time in his acceptance speech to laud Vinik. Beard, who was instrumental in helping shape downtown Tampa's northern skyline, was enthused that Vinik has the vision to finally complete the south side of downtown.

"The fact that he has financing for it is even more fantastic," he said, to laughter.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman cited Vinik's group as an example to follow for speaking with one voice to move Tampa Bay forward.

Not all were in lockstep, however.

The "Prosperity" theme of the chamber's gathering didn't sit well with a half-dozen protestors outside the convention center.

Chanting and brandishing signs such as "Prosperity for Whom?," the group objected to spending money on a grand makeover of Channelside and the rest of downtown's southern fringe. Rather, the protesters said leaders should be focused on reinvesting in poorer communities and trying to stimulate stagnant wages.

Samantha Bowden, 26, a University of South Florida politics graduate student, accused Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and other leaders of ignoring communities like Seminole Heights and West Tampa.

"A lot of issues are coming together," Bowden said, "and this whole generation is fed up."