The question came, as it typically does wherever Jeff Vinik speaks publicly, about midway through his appearance Friday morning at the Cafe con Tampa breakfast discussion group.
How, someone asked, does Vinik really feel about the prospect of a new Tampa Bay Rays baseball stadium near the $2 billion downtown development he plans around the home arena for his Tampa Bay Lightning?
And, as he has before, Vinik said less about the idea of having a competing venue nearby and more about what he sees as the economic development value and corporate recruiting necessity of keeping the Rays in the bay area.
"This is one of those questions where the stock, for-the-press response is the same as the actual response," Vinik said. "This region needs baseball. You can't have a big league area without big-league baseball. If we lose the Rays, when I fly up to New York or Connecticut to talk to a company (about moving here), I've got two strikes behind me: 'You guys can't even keep baseball in your community?' That's literally going to be the response."
Whether the Rays end up in Pinellas or Hillsborough does make a difference, Vinik acknowledged, but that's secondary. "To me, the most important thing is just making sure we retain this great community asset."
Beyond that, Vinik touched on familiar themes as he described the project he's undertaking with Cascade Investment, the capital fund launched by Microsoft founder Bill Gates. In creating a new downtown district on about 40 acres around Amalie Arena, it will be just as important to have bike paths, public art, programmed events 300 days a year, and ways to get there that don't rely on driving, such as an expanded trolley, as it will be to build hotels, office buildings and apartments.
"The soul of a community is about what happens on the street," he told more than 50 Tampa business executives, civic leaders and others at Hugo's Spanish Restaurant in South Tampa. As he and his partners are making plans, he said, what they're trying to do is create something that will arouse an emotional response: "I want to be in that place."
One thing that worries him: labor costs.
The first phase of the Vinik-Cascade project is estimated at $1.2 billion. Tampa International Airport has its own billion-dollar expansion under way. Port Tampa Bay is talking about a long-range $1.7 billion development of its own.
"Labor these days in construction is tight, and material costs are high, and that is something that we worry about." Vinik said. "We're not looking for shoot-the-lights out hedge-fund type returns. … What we're looking for is sustainable, long-term economic returns, and as costs go up you get squeezed a little bit, it makes it a little harder. You need a couple of extra dollars of rent. We can't price ourselves out of the market. We have to be able to have different price points. So one of the most significant worries we have is shortage of labor and cost of construction. It's in the top three of our worries."