Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Business

Lightning owner Jeff Vinik dreams big about downtown Tampa's redevelopment

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TAMPA — It has been a rough spring for Jeff Vinik, at least by multimillionaire standards.

His hockey team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, missed the playoffs. He decided to close his multibillion-dollar hedge fund, Vinik Asset Management LP. And he is no longer involved in the restoration of Channelside Bay Plaza.

But Vinik still has grand plans for his hockey team, his charitable foundation and, particularly, his considerable downtown real estate holdings.

"We're dreaming big," he said during an interview Thursday. "I want a thriving center of energy down here in this district. We see a huge amount of potential."

Vinik, 54, sat down with the Tampa Bay Times to discuss his vision — or as much as he would share. He was affable and upbeat, but also very guarded. As is his custom, he declined to speculate, discuss specifics or release financial details about most topics.

But he did say he has recruited real estate experts to help map out developing nearly 20 acres of downtown property he owns near the Tampa Bay Times Forum. He bought the arena's lease along with the hockey team in 2010.

He said he's compiling a master plan for his Channel District holdings, consulting the "best minds" inside and outside Tampa Bay. The project will likely be built in phases over several years. But he offered no start date.

"We want to be thoughtful and deliberate with this," he said. "Not take years with it. But take the appropriate amount of time (to build something) that this whole community will be proud of."

Vinik didn't rule out any options: It could be a mix of residential, retail, restaurants and hotels. He said his "Tampa Live" concept — similar to the L.A. Live mixed-use complex next to the Staples Center in Los Angeles — is still in play. The "Tampa Live" concept was part of his plans when he attempted to buy the Channelside entertainment complex lease last year.

He said his plans will go forward regardless of whether the ConAgra Food Inc. flour mill remains downtown, right next to his land. It is a remnant of Tampa's industrial past that is sorely out of place amid the condos. City leaders have wanted to move it for decades to spur development there. But Vinik said he's ready to build whether the flour mill stays or goes.

"When we think about our properties, frankly, we think about them with the plant there and without the plant there," he said.

Vinik said his plans also are not dependent on control of Channelside. He said he hasn't yet spoken to Liberty Channelside LLC, the group that replaced him as the frontrunner to take over the troubled complex. His only hope is that their plans bolster the Channel District.

"We want them to do it in a first-class manner," Vinik said, "and we will have discussions with them. We're sure we can help them and they can help us."

Vinik, who has an estimated net worth of $500 million, made his fortune as in investor. Vinik, the former head of Fidelity Investments Magellan Fund, launched his own hedge fund in Boston in 1996. He temporarily closed it in 2000, citing a desire to spend more time with his young family.

The relaunched hedge fund, Vinik Asset Management, moved its headquarters to Tampa a year ago.

By nature, hedge funds are geared toward wealthier investors who can absorb more risk in betting on major shifts in markets, currencies and industries. It's not unusual for hedge funds to have a relatively short shelf life and to vary in size as investors deposit and withdraw large sums. But Vinik Asset Management's recent turbulent run has seen some investors pulling out after disappointing results.

The hedge fund saw its assets under management dwindle from $5.9 billion in September 2011 to about $3.4 billion at the end of 2012, according to its quarterly report filed in February with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Vinik plans to close the fund by June 30.

Vinik said he was closing the fund because of a combination of factors: disappointing results, loss of investors and "what's best" for himself and his partner.

"I was disappointed," he said. "I love to win and I like to have a good performance."

It was harder shuttering his hedge fund this year than in 2000, Vinik said, because he has more investors and more than twice as many employees. Of 50 employees, about 40 will work for spin-off companies being created in both Boston or Tampa. "Those other 10, if that's what the number is, I'll do everything in my power to help them get good jobs. And we'll be as generous as we can with severance," he said.

Vinik didn't rule out jumping back into a hedge fund eventually and acknowledged he might miss it come July. But he felt it was time for a break.

"I love the market. I love competing against the market," he said. "But I tell you, I worked until 11:30 p.m. at night for the last 25 year. I'm looking forward to spending more time with the Lightning, the foundation, real estate, family and community."

Beyond the woes of his hedge fund, Vinik was equally disheartened by the Lightning's losing season. They finished 28th in the league.

"We think our team was much better than our record," he said. "We feel great about the organization (general manager) Steve Yzerman has put in place and the young folk we have coming up."

In the wake of major remodeling of the Times Forum, including a new scoreboard, Vinik pledged to spend more on customer service, improving the food and beverage options and upgrading the locker room.

Describing Yzerman and Lightning CEO Tod Leiweke as "outstanding," Vinik said he entrusts them to run the team and the Forum so he can focus elsewhere.

He wouldn't discuss the Lightning's finances and whether a new labor agreement propels the long money-losing franchise closer to break-even or even profitability. But he said he's committed to sticking with the Lightning — and his adopted home of Tampa — for the long term.

"While I like going back to Boston and it's still a community near and dear to my heart, I love it down here," he said.

His answer to another question — how long does he intend to own the Lightning? — was even more telling: "Till the day I die," Vinik said.

Jeff Harrington can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8242. Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404.

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