The first time James Nozar came to Tampa nearly a decade ago, he didn't think much of it.
Downtown wasn't very pedestrian-friendly. He saw only sprawling suburban communities. He didn't ever envision living here.
But when he got a phone call last year about a CEO job that would give him the reins to transform the entire city of Tampa, he reconsidered.
Nozar, 37, was hired in February to be the CEO of Strategic Property Partners, the real estate company backed by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and Bill Gates' Cascade Investment. He's charged with taking Vinik's lofty $2 billion plans to transform 40 acres of downtown Tampa's urban core and making it come to life.
"It's so rare to see development projects of this scale. From the size of it to the ownership and the financial backing," Nozar said in an interview at the SPP offices in Channelside Bay Plaza with the Tampa Bay Times recently. "When I told my former boss about it, he said this is once in a lifetime."
Nozar left a high-profile commercial real estate job with The JBG Companies in Washington, D.C., one of the top developers in the area, to do it. Two months into the new job in Tampa, Nozar and his husband, Adam Unger, are settling into a house they're renting in Hyde Park. And Nozar is finding a way to make Vinik's downtown revitalization project his own.
"At first I wasn't interested in the job," Nozar admits. "I had just bought my dream house and was renovating it. I liked living in D.C. and loved my job. But when I heard more about what was happening in Tampa, I was intrigued."
Nozar faces a new set of challenges as a first-time CEO of a young company with ambitious goals. First off, he arrives at a time to lead the project from planning and design into construction. He's tasked with hiring and creating a team, from architects to leasing agents, to nail down a hotel flag, a mix of national and local restaurant and retailers, and a major office space tenant that would employ hundreds here. He'll use his well-spoken charm to work hand-in-hand with city and county governments and the Tampa Port Authority along the way.
"We're building half a city here," Vinik said in a recent phone interview with the Times. "This is a big, complicated, multifaceted development that we are trying to design and build in a very short period of time. James is putting together the organizational structure we need to be successful. That's so necessary to attack and conquer this kind of audacious project where we have 20 to 30 initiatives to tackle in parallel to one another. That's why James is so critical."
Nozar may never have worked on a real estate development this big, but he has built retail projects that have transformed communities before. In essence, that's what he's tasked to do in Tampa.
"James is the right guy," Vinik said. "He's the one putting the team together that will take us from surface parking lots to an energized district."
As a senior vice president at JBG, Nozar was known for taking on projects in tired or underdeveloped neighborhoods around D.C. and reviving them. During his 10-year stint with JBG, Nozar oversaw 25 projects like this, most notably development that transformed parts of the U Street corridor in D.C. into vibrant, walkable communities with retail, restaurants and apartments aimed at younger residents in the area.
"When I first moved to D.C., it was sort of stuffy. It was all white tablecloths and not really a place young people wanted to be," said Nozar, who could pass for a millennial himself. "But it's transitioned to be a place where millennials want to be. Some of the development we were doing at the time was unique. We were building communities around our projects where people wanted to be."
One of the last projects he worked on before making the move is one of his favorites.
"It was a neighborhood in a gritty part of town but it had so much history," Nozar said of Atlantic Plumbing, a residential and retail development at Eighth and V streets in northwest D.C., which was known for the historic plumbing warehouse nearby. "There was a lot of blighted vacant property that we had the opportunity to redesign, but wanted to make sure we kept the right mood of the neighborhood."
A 310-unit apartment building with 19,100 square feet of retail and art studio space is under construction in this district now.
Jeff Speck, a city planner and acclaimed "new urbanism" advocate, met Nozar while he was working on a similar project in the U Street corridor. Speck was living in D.C. at the time with his family and saw Nozar at a neighborhood meeting in 2005 where some of JBG's plans were being discussed.
"I remember being very impressed with how he handled the conversation with the neighborhood," Speck said. "He had strong instincts and a good vision."
So when Vinik was looking for a new CEO to lead Strategic Property Partners, Nozar's name came to mind. Speck was hired by Vinik as a consultant last year to help design a walkable, friendly downtown corridor for Tampa where residents could work, live, shop and dine. He was no longer working on the project and had no official role in the hiring process when Vinik's team reached back out for help recruiting a replacement for Tod Leiweke, who ran the Lightning and the real estate project up until July, when he left to become chief operating officer of the NFL.
"I just mentioned his name," Speck said. "Having worked with the SPP team, I knew it was important to bring someone on who had experience developing real estate but also who had experience with urban, inner-city communities."
Vinik admits that Nozar was part of a long and intense hiring process.
Over a six-month time frame, Vinik said Nozar was interviewed almost 20 times. Sometimes it was in person in D.C., Tampa and even on the West Coast once with members of the Cascade Investment team. Sometimes it was over the phone.
Nozar called it "grueling."
But Vinik said he stood out from the 100 applications they sorted through. Vinik personally interviewed a handful of finalists for the job.
"It was clear to me that he had the skills and experience," Vinik said. "He understood that the success of this project would come from what goes on on the street level, from public art to cafes to art galleries to water features for the kids to play in. That was all in James' wheelhouse."
Vinik had no problem hiring someone who was young and had never been a CEO before. After all, Vinik was only 33 when he gained notability by being named the head of Fidelity's flagship Magellan fund in 1992.
Nozar says since he started the job, he has had phone calls from Vinik several times a day.
"He's really enjoying it and loving learning about the real estate business. And he's a quick learner," Nozar said.
Though Vinik is involved in the day-to-day operations, it's clear that Nozar is calling the shots.
"My job is basically refining his vision. It's creating the mood and filling in detail," he said.
Since he started, Nozar has doubled the size of SPP's staff from nine to 19. Those positions range from human resources to tech and finance. But a lot of the hires have been on the commercial real estate side and are people Nozar has known personally.
"The SPP team has been extremely lean for some time. His hiring recently signals they're entering the construction phase," Speck said.
The next step of SPP's development is set to begin this summer as $35 million worth of road work and infrastructure improvements along Channelside Drive gets under way. The first phase of the development will include a new 400- to 500-room luxury hotel, a 650,000-square-foot office tower and more than 300,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space. It's expected to come online over the next three to four years. In addition, the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Institute will join downtown Tampa, and renovations will start at the Marriott Waterside Hotel and Marina and Channelside Bay Plaza.
"I can't think of any other city that is quite like Tampa," Nozar said, after having spent a few months exploring the area. "It's an easy place to live and very friendly."
Nozar knows the South. He grew up around Charlotte, N.C., and studied building construction and architecture at Georgia Tech, where he graduated in 2001. Prior to working for JBG in D.C., he was a real estate consultant at Ernst and Young and RCLCo, where he advised clients such as Whole Foods and Home Depot. Always ambitious, Nozar saw himself running his own development business one day, but never something quite like this.
"This is much larger than I ever imagined," he said.
Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] Follow @SunBizGriffin.