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John Romano: Jeff Vinik is key to Channelside dilemma

My, my, my. What is a body to do?

The Tampa Port Authority board just blew up the latest proposal to reimagine Channelside Bay Plaza, which means starting the whole process over again.

Yup, this sure is a pickle.

If only there was a wealthy financier around to help out.

If only this financier had an economic interest in the surrounding area.

If only this person had a track record in business, a reputation for philanthropy and a hockey team in a nearby arena.

If only we were so lucky.

All sarcasm aside, isn't it about time Port Authority officials ask Jeff Vinik what it will take to bring him back to the table and then promise him it will be done by noon?

Oh, I'm not suggesting they rig the deck. After all, this should be an open and transparent competition among any interested parties.

But who are we kidding?

Vinik is the perfect fit, and everyone connected to the Port Authority knows it. He invested a bunch of time in this project last year but grew discouraged with a goofy stipulation that gave the previous owner a chance to match any offer for the foreclosed shopping and entertainment complex. The Lightning owner walked away from the project seven months ago, and hardly anyone has felt optimistic about it since.

So don't you think Vinik might have been on the minds of the authority's board members Tuesday when they unexpectedly shot down a proposed deal with Liberty Channelside LLC to buy the lease from the Irish bank that owns it?

That doesn't mean there were any behind-the-scenes shenanigans, but it does suggest board members were looking at the big picture.

They want a business plan in place, and they want evidence that a new owner has the finances to back up what is being proposed.

"The board made it very clear what they're looking for," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman, who sits on the authority board. "Every proposal is going to be measured the same way this one was."

Board members know this project cannot afford to go belly up a second time, and they know Vinik would not come on board with a fly-by-night renovation.

So the question now is whether Vinik is interested.

My guess is yes.

Probably heck yes.

He has too much invested in the Tampa Bay Times Forum and 20 acres of surrounding property to not be intrigued by the Channelside complex.

The Channelside property would allow that entire section of downtown to be developed with a unifying vision. And in a businessman's sense of timing, Vinik is shutting down his hedge fund next month to devote his attention to hockey and real estate.

"Absolutely, we'd love to entertain another proposal from Mr. Vinik. We'd be fools not to,'' Murman said. "He represents everything we're looking for. … We know that he would have the community's best interests at heart.

"The recent news that he's going to spend more time working on his real estate holdings is music to our ears.''

It would be wrong for the Port Authority to play favorites. But it would also be foolish to let this opportunity pass.

The Port Authority has to get Vinik back into the game. And it has to do everything within the law to make that happen.

John Romano: Jeff Vinik is key to Channelside dilemma 05/22/13 [Last modified: Thursday, May 23, 2013 12:38am]

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