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VINIK'S ON RIGHT TRACK, AND OPENNESS IS KEY

Jeff Vinik is taking the right approach in remaking Tampa's channel district. The sweeping vision his development team has laid out would change the character and economics of downtown Tampa. The Tampa Bay Lightning owner will need to work closely with the city on a project that could shape the entire region for decades.

Vinik's top aide, Tod Leiweke, outlined an ambitious proposal for the 24 acres Vinik owns near the Amalie Arena where the Lightning play. The concept calls for residences, hotels, commercial space, restaurants and entertainment spots, with the goal of creating a work-live-play environment that could transform the southern end of downtown into a truly mixed-use community.

Leiweke announced that an investment fund controlled by Bill Gates, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, would help finance the plan, which Leiweke said could be a "billion-dollar" development. Vinik's group is also working to bring major employers to the area, and it has talked with the University of South Florida about locating a new medical school downtown.

Vinik's plan is meant to build a stronger fan base for his team and to maximize his holdings near the arena. But the impact will reach far beyond his own business. Having thousands of new residents downtown will enliven the city center, raise the city's profile (and tax base) and work to attract new corporate offices.

The project could easily be the largest experiment with urban planning in Tampa - which is why it's essential that Vinik and the city get it right from the start. Vinik's team is putting a strong foundation in place, assembling financing and personnel with the experience to manage the mix of residential and commercial uses. It is identifying business anchors and working to diversify the feel of the district, which are key to building a 24/7 experience in the downtown core. And Vinik and the city are talking about street grids, infrastructure and other details at the outset rather than working separately or piecemeal. That collaborative approach is the best way to ensure that a master plan for the district takes shape.

Vinik expects to unveil the first phase of his development plans later this year. There is time to debate the design elements, the commercial-residential mix and the appropriate level of public investment in transit and other amenities. The important task now is for Vinik and the city to get on the same page, both in terms of the scope and vision for this development and in the strategy for using this project to attract new corporations to the region.

Vinik's role is expanding far beyond his hockey team, and his development group will need to be public about their plans as they partner with the city. The city, in turn, needs to keep this project moving in an orderly way. It appears at the outset that both sides have a long view and appreciate what they are taking on - an encouraging sign at this critical early stage.

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