Three visions to remake three downtowns: Who will best deliver?

THREE CITIES, THREE VISIONS: WILL ANY BE WINNERS?
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H e says he's not nervous.

No one would blame him if he were. The future of a big chunk of downtown rests in his hands, and a lot of people are watching.

We're talking, of course, about Jeff Vinik and his large-scale, visionary waterfront redevelopment plan surrounding Amalie Arena in downtown Tampa — right?

Nope. Those lines, paraphrased from the Orlando Sentinel, are about a Central Florida developer named Craig Ustler who is several years into a bold refashioning of a large piece of downtown Orlando to be known as Creative Village.

Buying 60 acres, setting up his own school, his own medical clinic, his own venture fund and restaurants, he is creating an innovation city in his own image.

Now that's got to be talking about Vinik, right? Who else has the means, dream and opportunity in a downtown like Tampa that so wants to leapfrog into the 21st century?

Wrong again. That's a line borrowed from the online technology news site called re/code about Tony Hsieh, the high-profile CEO of online shoe retailer Zappos, and his audacious idea called Downtown Project to turn a stagnant swath of Las Vegas into a small city dedicated to innovation and entrepreneurship.

Vinik may be the "toast of Tampa", as the Boston Globe called their city's expatriate this past week. But he is hardly the only rich fellow with grandiose makeover plans for a city's downtown. It seems Orlando and Las Vegas are but two of a handful of cities that, like Tampa, have rich sugar daddies with strikingly similar visions of remaking tired and sleepy downtowns into upscale, go-to communities teeming with an enviable mix of progressive business headquarters, university gravitas and entrepreneurship amid inviting housing and entertainment offerings — all in a walkable urban scene.

Isn't that today's gold standard for any major downtown city wants? Vibrancy. A sense of place. Amenities that embody a "live and work and play" environment.

Not to diminish the potential of Tampa's Vinik project (online at tbtim.es/vinik). But knowing that various projects of Vinik's magnitude already are under way in other U.S. cities offers perspective that the impressive plan for a 40-acre redo of a piece of Tampa, stretching from the convention center east to the Channelside Plaza retail shops, is perhaps not as unusual as this aspiring metro area might wish.

And taking a closer look at Orlando and Las Vegas, whose projects are both further along than Vinik's, may shed some light on the kinds of hurdles downtown Tampa may encounter — or hopefully avoid — in the coming years of a complex, multiyear project.

In Orlando, it's the hurdle of impatience. Creative Village developer Ustler announced his megaproject in 2010. Now the mood in that city's downtown is: Why so slow?

Orlando Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell this month says it is "crunch time" for the guy who vowed four years ago to turn the former Amway Arena into Orlando's next Creative Village.

"Ustler seems to have a start with promise of a UCF campus downtown. But Ustler still has much to accomplish to turn this fallow landscape into the high-tech, high-wage mini-metropolis he has touted," Maxwell writes. "People want Ustler to succeed. But they are also ready to see things happen. Soon."

In Las Vegas, Tony Hsieh is leveraging his clout as Internet entrepreneur rock star and $350 million of his own wealth to position his Downtown Project as a utopia for business startups and urban renewal.

So far, Hsieh faces greater skepticism. His approach as a developer is less traditional. And his higher business profile puts him under the media microscope more often. As a visiting reporter for the British newspaper the Guardian wrote in November:

"The multimillionaire Internet entrepreneur's outlandish experiment in urban revival is fast becoming an object of ridicule."

Recent coverage by Bloomberg and Business Week, prominent reporters of business news, and technology publications added further doubts this past fall. Questions arose after Hsieh's Downtown Project laid off 30 people, or 10 percent of the number then employed. Rumors also surfaced that Hsieh had "stepped down" as leader of the ambitious project.

Hsieh has acknowledged challenges in how his Las Vegas project is shaping up but insists he is no less involved, regardless of any change in his title.

What does this all mean for Vinik and his own downtown Tampa?

Downtown megaprojects driven by one prominent figurehead will focus extreme scrutiny on that individual, especially in the early years when there is not a lot of tangible evidence that these massive redevelopments are reaching critical mass.

In Orlando, Ustler boasts a strong development track record but lacks the larger-scale resume to draw the attention of a national audience. In Las Vegas, Hsieh's digital reputation is a charismatic attribute, but there's a feeling that he's trying too hard to lift his eclectic development project on his own shoulders and with his own money. That kind of leverage is risky, for Hsieh and Las Vegas.

And Vinik? In financial and pro sports circles, he's a national name given his successful track record running Fidelity's Magellan mutual fund, running his own hedge fund and more recently owning the Tampa Bay Lightning. The commitment of billionaire Bill Gates' investing arm to help back Vinik's project adds immediate credibility.

But Tampa Bay should prepare itself for some downs with the ups of Vinik's project. At some point, things will seem too slow. Promised relocations or proposed construction may not happen. And Vinik himself should be ready to confront inevitable second-guessing about a project that will take many years to emerge, much less mature.

Risky? Sure. But where would these aging city downtowns be without guys like these?

Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected] or (727) 893-8405. Follow @venturetampabay.

 
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