TAMPA — Mayor Bob Buckhorn likes to say his favorite place for a baseball stadium in downtown Tampa would be north of the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
But does Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, the hedge fund star with the means and the vision to reshape downtown's Channelside area, believe the same?
Vinik is linked to the acquisition of several parcels around the Times Forum that tie the Channel District together and could set the stage for the massive redevelopment of a barren swath of downtown.
There would be enough land to build all sorts of things: high-rise towers, apartments and hotel rooms, places to eat and shop and, theoretically, a baseball stadium.
Two weeks ago a Vinik partnership, Crestline Acquisitions Group LLC, paid $9.5 million for a narrow, 5-acre strip owned by the Italiano family that sits across from the Times Forum. It's right next to 7 acres that another group tied to Vinik, Pinnacle Channelside Properties LLC, bought last year for $6.8 million.
All that land fronts the Tampa Bay Times Forum arena, which Vinik leases, and is near the Channelside Bay Plaza entertainment complex, which he's trying to acquire.
"I think irrespective of whether baseball comes or not, it's a smart acquisition on his part," Buckhorn said. "If I were in his shoes I would want to do the same thing. Not only do you protect the front door to your major investments but, if you're as successful as I think they will be, it opens up opportunities to completely refashion the area."
Vinik and his partners already have plans to do just that on the southern side of Channelside Drive. They envision refurbishing and relaunching the beleaguered Channelside Bay Plaza; adding new development like a hotel to create a contiguous waterfront development from the Times Forum to the Florida Aquarium; and tying it all to the city's Riverwalk. They're negotiating with the Anglo Irish Bank of Dublin to take over the foreclosed plaza.
The land assembled by Vinik's partnerships is bordered by Channelside Drive on the south and the ConAgra Foods flour mill on the north. The lots were being leased for parking by the Lightning and will still be used for that. But now the team won't have to pay for it anymore.
Lightning spokesman Bill Wickett said there are no plans to develop the new purchases — not yet anyway.
"Other than immediately focusing on improving parking options and service for our guests and employees, we have not discussed plans for any of the property north of Channelside Drive," Wickett said, "but could envision our involvement in some kind of future development."
But the one thing Wickett did rule out was Vinik's involvement in a potential baseball stadium or the Tampa Bay Rays.
"While we are excited about our neighborhood and its potential development, we are not engaged in any discussions regarding any designs for baseball," Wickett said. "We have too much respect for our friends at the Rays and the others involved to interject ourselves into the process."
The bay area is rife with speculation about the future home of the Rays, who are locked into a contract to play in St. Petersburg's Tropicana Field. The team wants St. Petersburg to let them explore options on both sides of the bay.
Developer Darryl LeClair has proposed the "Rays Park at Carillon" project, a 35,000-seat stadium built in mid Pinellas County. Developer Joel Cantor floated the idea of demolishing Channelside Bay Plaza to build a stadium, a concept that would face many roadblocks.
But while LeClair has the drawings and Cantor has the dream, Vinik has the land.
According to the Lightning, Vinik has a "non-controlling interest" in five partnerships that own land around the Times Forum, including the two involved in the latest purchases. Those companies also own other properties near the Times Forum. Vinik also owns 5.5 acres on the east and west sides of the Times Forum.
Vinik, who moved his family and his money management firm here from Boston, spoke to the Tampa Bay Times on Thursday. He reiterated his commitment to Tampa and Channelside in particular.
"We care greatly about everything that happens in our neighborhood here," Vinik said. "Whether we are the ones to transform it and make it a great destination for the Tampa Bay region or whether it's some other party, the most important thing is it's done properly, it's done well, it does become a jewel of this area."
Buckhorn cautioned, though, that Channelside may not be suitable for baseball without adding the ConAgra plant to the mix. The flour mill's owners would be willing to relocate for the right price, the mayor said, and he's not opposed to the city and county sweetening the deal. A ConAgra spokesperson could not be reached for comment.
And baseball might not even be best use of the land anyway, the mayor said. Vinik's plans for Channelside Bay Plaza have been compared to the L.A. Live complex, a massive mix of hotel, residential and retail space next to the Staples Center, host to the NBA's Lakers and the NHL's Kings. Whatever properties Vinik adds to his portfolio could be used in the same fashion.
"I think the future there is limitless," Buckhorn said.
Staff writer Damian Cristodero contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404.