TAMPA — When Tod Leiweke first met Lightning owner Jeff Vinik last summer, the two walked the halls of the St. Pete Times Forum. This wasn't a customary half-hour tour of the facility. It was the pitch of Vinik's dream to make the Forum one of the nation's top arenas.
"We spent hours in the building, walking and thinking," said Leiweke, the Lightning's CEO. "I would say most of what we talked about that first day was about what we could do to make the building consistent with his vision of a world-class organization."
This offseason, that vision is turning into reality amid the summer sweat and smell of sawdust.
A $35 million-plus facelift to the 15-year-old Forum — all bankrolled by Vinik — is promised not only to fix the wear and tear of time but create the best fan experience possible.
"We knew we were coming up short, so we said, 'Hey, we need to get this done now,' " Leiweke said. "Something that would have maybe taken years, we're trying to get done in a calendar year."
The project is slated to be mostly complete by the Lightning's home opener on Oct. 17. Some parts, mainly the renovation to the west entrance, will be completed in time for the arena to host the Republican National Convention in August 2012.
About 180 construction workers are splitting two shifts to finish the project on time. With just 10 events — and no major concerts — at the Forum the next two months, August, typically a slow month for the venue, will be crunch time.
"Right now we have workers working from 6 to 4:30 every day," project manager Mike O'Donnell said. "And at 4:30, if something still needs to get done, we'll use overtime to do it."
The overhaul will give the Forum a completely different look, with new sight lines and seats, and features that the Lightning's front office hopes will become signature facets of the arena.
Every suite is being rebuilt, with 60 square feet added to each. Some of the suite renovations were cosmetic upgrades, like removing bulky television cabinets no longer needed because of the wall-mounted flat screens.
But on the third-floor suites, the common-area entry vestibules were eliminated to allocate more space. Along the way, 4 feet was added to the concourse, which received a shiny new vinyl flake-flooring sealer. Fifth-floor suite bathrooms were removed to add square footage. Marble countertops, drink rails, induction burners, tile flooring, custom lighting and new leather seats also modernize the suites.
Eight suites were removed — two in each corner of the lower level bowl — where standing tables and drink rails will give fans a direct view of the action from the concourse.
"That was a very challenging decision because ultimately, for our long-term viability, we've got to make sure we draw more revenue," Leiweke said. "But we felt the building in some ways needed a soul."
Leiweke said he and Vinik are proud of the suite upgrades but just as excited about the work being done on the upper concourse. Plastic seats will be replaced with plush cushioned seats, each with a drink holder. An 11,000-foot outdoor deck and party area is being built on the roof of the arena's west side.
Fifty-four flatbeds worth of concrete were removed from two upper-deck end zone seating sections. Five-hundred seventy-four seats gave way to a pipe organ, which will have a bar on either side, a fixture Leiweke hopes becomes a staple of the arena, similar to the pirate ship in the Raymond James Stadium end zone.
Another signature addition will be Tesla coils on either side of the scoreboard that will shoot lightning 25 feet.
"How can you be named the Lightning and not have a signature effect in the building?" Leiweke said.
Other key parts of the project:
• The air conditioning system, which had a failing dehumidifying system that pumped out wet, cold air and caused some seat bolts to rust, will be redone. Duct socks will distribute the air throughout the arena better.
• A new lighting system will add more brightness to the arena, which will enhance the experience for hockey fans at the game and watching on TV. Leiweke said the Forum was one of the darkest surfaces in the NHL. The improved lighting will now allow super slow-motion technology to be utilized.
• The final part of the project is the restructuring of the west plaza entrance, giving it the "grand entry" point it has never had. It wasn't part of the initial $35 million project.
At the end of the day, the seating upgrades speak most to the vision of the work being done at the Forum.
Lightning spokesman Bill Wickett said the team was seeking more of a theater feel than that of a stadium, with each new seat passing Vinik's personal comfort test.
Leiweke remembers trying out seats with Vinik, the Lightning owner moving from chair to chair and opting for the costlier, more comfortable ones.
"It was the more expensive option, but at the end of the day it really underscored for all of us how serious this guy was in serving our fans," Leiweke said. "It was a six-figure decision, and he was right. I think it was a moment many of us will remember for a long time, his jumping from seat to seat and saying, 'This is more comfortable. This is the right thing to do.' "