The real estate pros in charge of Tampa's $3 billion makeover are younger than you think

Brooke May, a 36-year-old senior construction project manager, knew she wanted to work for Strategic Property Partners the minute she met some team members involved with the group's massive downtown Tampa makeover.

TAMPA — Brooke May, a 36-year-old senior construction project manager, knew she wanted to work for Strategic Property Partners the minute she met some team members involved with the group's massive downtown Tampa makeover.

"I expected a bunch of 65-year-old guys to walk in the room, but they were all so young," May recalled. "It was such a surprise to see."

The $3 billion complete overhaul of 57 acres of downtown — a project known as Water Street Tampa — is emerging as a dream job for many in Tampa Bay and beyond. Strategic Property Partners, the real estate firm owned by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and Bill Gates' Cascade Investment, has begun expanding its workforce rapidly. Turns out a lot of those new hires are fairly young — the average age in the office is 34.

The youth movement began last year with the hiring of James Nozar, a dynamic 38-year-old real estate pro from Washington D.C., to lead the team as CEO. And since Nozar came on board, he's boosted SPP's staff to almost 40, a mix of young and experienced people from across the country and from Tampa's own back yard. He hired Bryan Moll, a 35-year-old as executive vice president of development and Matt Davis, a 26-year-old right out of college as a vice president of development.

"We have a purposely diverse team," said Geoff Guidera, senior vice president of administration who oversees human resources at SPP. Guidera is 39. "The people we've hired have been the driver for our culture. Everyone here wants to be a part of this, and to make a difference in the city of Tampa. Even as we've grown, we've kept this sense of a start up and entrepreneurial nature, in that we're not drawing lines around our job descriptions. It helps us to be agile and not feel isolated into silos."

When Vinik created the SPP firm to lead the redevelopment of downtown Tampa over the next decade, he envisioned a walkable, sustainable downtown area with shopping and dining, innovative companies' offices, apartments, condos, hotels, bike paths and rooftop bars. So he hired young people to put all these pieces together, and to ultimately build a downtown that other young people will want to come to. (Vinik is among a group of local investors who loaned $12 million to the Tampa Bay Times as part of the company's refinancing.)

Guidera says that as a company, SPP has been willing to take a risk on younger hires as long as they can demonstrate they have the ability to do the job.

"Young people have a great opportunity to be included in things right away," he said. "But not everyone here is young. We have people here who bring a huge portfolio of experience with them."

Previous Coverage: Finally, Jeff Vinik's vision has a name: Water Street Tampa

SPP operates much like a start up. The company began with a handful of people in a couple empty offices at Amalie Arena. Eventually it moved into an empty office in Channelside Bay Plaza (a property that an entity within SPP also owns), and in less than a year, the company is already bursting at the seams. SPP will move permanently into the District 3 warehouse eventually, an old brick building that currently houses "The Art of the Brick" Lego exhibit curated this summer by the Vinik family. Nozar says he's already plotting exposed ceilings and other hip architectural elements that will speak directly to the style and culture of this young real estate firm.

The job of SPP itself is very futuristic. SPP's team is charged with identifying employers that would bring attractive, high paying jobs to downtown Tampa, retail and restaurant tenants that will still be hip and interesting 10 years from now, and creating urban buildings and parks that people will want to visit, live or work in.

After meeting some of the young SPP development team while working for another Tampa construction firm, May applied for a job at SPP right away. One she says she wasn't exactly qualified for.

"I just wanted to get on their radar. This is such a significant project for Tampa. Of course I wanted to be a part of it," May said. Later on, SPP approached her with a more suitable senior construction project manager position.

May's only been on a job a couple of weeks, but says she's been amazed at the opportunities afforded to her already.

"I got here and my boss said, 'All right, you're responsible for this block' (of downtown streets and buildings) and I couldn't believe it," May said.

Previous Coverage: How do you transform a downtown like Tampa's that has such little history?

Damien Presiga heard what was going on in his home town and also decided to apply for a senior construction management job. Presiga, 37, said he isn't worried about what will come next when the Water Street Tampa project is completed in the next decade.

"There aren't too many chances to work on a project like this,"he explained. "To have this on my resume and to be a part of the team they've put together here is totally worth it."

Davis, 26, was hired early on by Nozar, whom he knew from a previous job in the Boston area.

"It's been incredible to watch us grow from a tight team of 10 to where we are now. I never thought I'd end up in Tampa, but here I am," Davis said. "It's such a collaborative group with a real hands on approach. Everyone has a voice here. Age is really just a number."

Next up, SPP is looking to hire a vice president of technology, a pivotal position that lead to the creation of what SPP says will be one of the nation's first true "connected cities." Nozar envisions a downtown district with free wifi zones and other futuristic technology needs and applications.

"We've had more than 100 people apply already," Nozar said.

Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.