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Jeff Vinik's vision for Channelside: spruced-up, pedestrian-friendly, and maybe a new hotel

TAMPA — Jeff Vinik doesn't just plan to remake Channelside Bay Plaza. He wants to re-imagine it.

The Tampa Bay Lightning owner plans to make the troubled development more pedestrian-friendly; add retail and possibly a hotel to bring in more visitors; and link it to the Tampa Bay Times Forum and Florida Aquarium to turn the Channelside district into a seamless waterside entertainment area linked to Tampa's Riverwalk, the 2.2 mile waterfront walkway.

"We want more people to come downtown," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman, "and this whole concept is just going to enliven this area."

Vinik and his partners are negotiating with the Anglo Irish Bank of Dublin to take over the 234,520-square-foot structure. Their plans are just ideas and concepts at this stage. They are not firm and have not been made public. But they were shown to the Tampa Port Authority's governing board, which Murman sits on.

The Vinik group, according to board members, compared their concept to the Los Angeles sports-entertainment L.A. Live complex. It's a massive mix of condos and hotels, restaurants and shops, next to the Staples Center, home of the NBA's Lakers and NHL's Kings. The two projects have a family link: L.A. Live executive Tim Leiweke is the brother of Lightning CEO Tod Leiweke.

"Tampa Live," Murman said. "That's my version."

L.A. Live's plans include a proposed football stadium to lure the NFL back to Los Angeles. As the Tampa Bay Rays look for a new home, Murman said, Vinik's proposal would transform the Channelside District into an ideal spot for a future baseball stadium — should the Rays ever relocate to downtown Tampa, that is.

"Hopefully we'll be able to attract a sports venue down the road," Murman said.

Lightning spokesman Bill Wickett declined to comment on behalf of Vinik and his partners.

• • •

If Vinik reaches an agreement to purchase Channelside, it will still need approval from the port's governing board. The Port Authority controls the land beneath Channelside and has the final say on who will take it over.

It is one of the most sought-after properties in Tampa Bay — one that has long under-performed. It has a movie theater and restaurants but has struggled to consistently attract crowds since it opened in 2001. It has been in limbo since 2010, when the old owners defaulted on a $27 million loan.

The plaza's shortcomings were apparent to all the groups that bid to take it over, said Port commissioner Patrick Allman.

"I think all of them recognized that right now the perception of the public is that it's a nightlife only place," Allman said. "What they were all looking to do … was try to get more of a mix of businesses down there so they can get families down there … so they can widen the variety of people that would come to Channelside."

The Vinik group proposed doing that by changing the marketing and branding of Channelside, and the mix of tenants. They want to bring in tenants who would keep people coming to Channelside throughout the day, not just at night — more retail shops (one commissioner suggested they could bring in a grocery store) and a big draw such as a hotel.

The likely location for that big draw would be the parking lot at Beneficial Drive and Channelside Drive, a 3 ½-acre property owned by the Port Authority and zoned for retail, office or hotel space.

"The concept is called 'heads in beds,' " Murman said. "That's what they say in the tourist industry. That's what makes a real difference, when people come over and stay overnight."

Commissioners said there was no definitive plan for what would be put there. But acquiring the parking lot would connect Channelside to the properties that Vinik acquired near the Tampa Bay Times Forum when he bought the Lightning in 2010. The Forum, Channelside and the Florida Aquarium would all be linked.

Murman said there were also plans to enhance the entrance to Channelside to make it more inviting from the Forum:

"It'll be much bigger and more attractive."

• • •

Commissioner Lawrence Shipp said that the Vinik group also proposed a marketing campaign to draw more people in and cosmetic changes to tie Channelside much more closely to the condo towers and neighborhood that have risen since the project broke ground 14 years ago with a price tag of $35 million.

"It really wasn't designed for the community around it," Shipp said. "Now you have a community around Channelside and they're looking to make it inclusive for all the community, to make it a place that they can go to and they can enjoy.

"They're looking to make it a busy place 365 days a year."

No radical reconstruction was proposed. But the designs call for a significantly spruced-up Channelside.

"I think it's very colorful, attractive, very eye-catching," Murman said.

One significant addition: an elevated pedestrian bridge between the parking garage and Channelside that would get pedestrians off Channelside Drive, which is already busy with traffic, cruise ship passengers and a trolley car.

To Allman, that idea showed that the Vinik group understands what must ultimately be done to improve Channelside: Not only do patrons need more reasons to go there — to eat and shop, to see a movie or spend the weekend — but it must also become easier to use to keep them coming back.

"They have to meet the expectations of customers to bring them back," Allman said, "so they'll be repeat customers."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3404.

Jeff Vinik's vision for Channelside: spruced-up, pedestrian-friendly, and maybe a new hotel 07/03/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 4, 2012 12:06am]
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