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Column: Lightning owner touts shared benefits

Craig Sher came to Brandon this week with an important message.

He wants his adult daughters to move back to the area.

So, exactly what does Brandon have to do with Sher being closer to his family?

More than you realize.

Sher, who became one of the new minority owners of the Tampa Bay Lightning this summer, shared his message at a Monday luncheon sponsored by Leadership Brandon Alumni.

"What I've tried to do in the last 27 years is to make Tampa Bay a better place, and it's for very selfish reasons," said Sher, executive chairman and former chief executive officer of the Sembler Co., one of the region's top commercial developers.

"I want my three daughters to move back here. I've been successful with one so far, and I'm working on the other two. But I won't rest and I'll do everything, including bribery, to get my children to come back and live near my wife and I."

Sher focuses on four areas in his quest to improve the community and lure his daughters: business, education, religion and fun.

He has a role in a number of businesses beyond the development company, including part ownership of Lifestyle Fitness Center. He's chairman of the Pinellas Education Fund and strongly supports Shorecrest Prep in St. Petersburg. He's active in the local Jewish community.

And as one of the people guiding the new Lightning, he's keenly interested in adding more fun to Tampa Bay.

"This is not my biggest investment in the world, but it's really one of the most important because I truly believe what I said before — it's vital to the fabric of the community," Sher said after his presentation. "And it's fun."

If the Tampa Bay area needs the Lightning to increase its fun quotient, then the Lightning needs the South Shore and Brandon area to help improve its bottom line.

The Lightning ranked among the top 10 in attendance last year, but as Sher explained, its average ticket prices ranked 22nd among the NHL's 30 teams.

The previous owners, Palace Sports & Entertainment, proved to be great corporate and community citizens, but part of the reason they sold the team to the group led by Saw producer Oren Koules is because it struggled to operate in the black.

Sher, whose company developed St. Petersburg's BayWalk and Centro Ybor, could easily find ways to keep himself busy. Instead, he's shilling for the Lightning at places like the Winthrop Barn on Riverview because the team needs ongoing support from this area.

"Brandon is huge to the Tampa Bay Lightning," Sher said. "It's a huge bedroom community, and it's rapidly growing with south Brandon expanding into Riverview and all the way down to Sun City Center. With the Selmon Expressway, it's fairly easy access for all the communities and I think the income levels are strong. They tend to be able to afford entertainment."

Sher's public outreach role is more commonly held by the community relation directors or other public relations types, but he embraces the opportunity as one of two locals in the ownership group. He said the team will become an even bigger part of the community by expanding the activities of the Lightning Foundation.

For those of you who don't know, that's a tall order. Palace Sports did an outstanding job wrapping its arms around the community, especially Brandon, home of one of the area's top junior hockey programs. Such efforts helped the team maintain its popularity through the 2004-05 work stoppage.

Winning on the ice would be great, but winning our hearts through philanthropy is even better.

That's all I'm saying.

Ernest Hooper also writes a column for the Tampa Bay section. Reach him at hooper@sptimes.com or 226-3406.

Column: Lightning owner touts shared benefits 09/18/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 18, 2008 4:31am]

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