1. Life & Culture

Penny Vinik dreams up an Amalie Arena full of 'Beach' balls

Penny Vinik, wife of Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, made it her mission to bring the simulated ocean of translucent bubbles to Tampa after it was the hit of the summer last year at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. The Beach Tampa exhibit is coming to Amalie Arena Aug. 5-25, and it will be free thanks to the Vinik Family Foundation. Photo courtesy Amalie Arena.
Penny Vinik, wife of Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, made it her mission to bring the simulated ocean of translucent bubbles to Tampa after it was the hit of the summer last year at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. The Beach Tampa exhibit is coming to Amalie Arena Aug. 5-25, and it will be free thanks to the Vinik Family Foundation. Photo courtesy Amalie Arena.
Published Jul. 30, 2016

It was a summer day in Washington, D.C., and Penny Vinik had time to kill before meeting her son.

For most, the answer would be coffee and smartphone. But Penny headed to the National Building Museum, to an interactive exhibit called the Beach.

The line was two hours long. She didn't have two hours, but felt an urgent pull to see it. She bought a membership and got in faster.

Inside, she saw a sea of plastic balls, scaffolding, beach chairs, umbrellas, all white as cumulus clouds on a clear, 70-degree day. Against the starkness, she saw grandmothers, teenagers, babies. Colors seemed to explode.

She slipped off her wedge sandals and dangled her feet into the orbs. If not for her dress, she would have submerged her whole body.

She sat there laughing, thinking and seeing the possibility.

• • •

Flash forward to summer in Tampa Bay.

You may have seen the billboards for the Beach Tampa, with people on floaties cascading around waves of plastic balls.

An indoor beach with "water" made from 1.2 million white balls opens Friday for three weeks at the Amalie Arena. The balls are in an all-white enclosure of scaffolding, panels and mesh.

The exhibit, created by New York design firm Snarkitecture, will be free to the public. In Washington last summer, tickets cost $16. The Vinik Family Foundation, a charitable organization that has been donating to causes fairly quietly for years, is footing the bill.

Though they insist it's not about attention, the Beach is another level up for the Vinik name. It was all but unknown here six years ago.

In 2010, Boston hedge fund manager Jeff Vinik bought the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team. It didn't take long before everyone knew Jeff. Duke. Harvard. Managed the Fidelity Magellan fund in the '90s, perhaps the best-known mutual fund in the world.

Here, he has been behind a $1 billion construction project to redevelop Tampa's Channel District into a live-work-play mecca he hopes will redefine the energy and feel of the city.

The Beach fits into that vision, he said, calling it a "down payment to the community," and a sign of things to come.

But the one to dream it was his wife.

"She had this vision to bring the Beach to Tampa, and kind of made it happen," said Snarkitecture partner Ben Porto. "As far as clients go, it was kind of an amazing, out-of-the-blue relationship to form."

Her husband gets most of the press, but the woman with hair the hue of her name remains a whimsical foil to his measured, quiet style. She only recently started dabbling in public speaking, and the Beach has helped.

"We did a lot of PSAs for TV, for radio," said Jeff. "Without any doubt, Penny was better at acting-slash-speaking than I was. So, quite a blow to the ego, there."

What they're doing with the Beach bears repeating:

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They are closing a premier entertainment arena for three weeks to host an art project that will make no real money. They won't say how much the foundation paid for the Beach.

"It's not cheap," Jeff said. "But we think it's well worth it."

It's a difficult experience to define unless you see it, Penny said. Everyone from the staff at the Lightning to Penny's own mother looked at her cockeyed.

"I kept pushing," she said. "I have many years of nagging practice."

Jeff was always on board, Penny being a trusted visionary for almost 29 years of marriage. But he understood any hesitation from the staff.

"We're, frankly, running a business and we're also trying to entertain our fans in this area, our eventgoers, with concerts," said Jeff, 57. "These are really important events for the community and we wanted to position it as such that we didn't take that away."

It is slow season, yes. Hockey is over. But entertainment is not dead. The Beach will close on Aug. 25, and two days later, megastar rapper Drake will put on a show.

• • •

Penny called recently from the Vinik home on Cape Cod, where she is staying before the launch of the Beach. The Viniks, who have four children 15 to 26, commuted here for two years before moving into a South Tampa home.

She sat surrounded by tropical hues of pink, yellow and turquoise. In her front room was a chair made from a shopping cart, bent, welded and reattached.

She misses New England when she's away.

"It was a little rocky for me at first, being such New Englander," said Penny, 53. "It was hard leaving family and friends. But this (Tampa Bay) community is very embracing and wonderful to me and my husband."

She was born in Cleveland but her family quickly moved to Massachusetts. Her mother was a kindergarten teacher and her father was a consultant who worked to turn around troubled companies.

One of her earliest memories was running into the Worcester Art Museum to take an art class. In high school, she did acting, cheerleading, yearbook. Majoring in art was never a reality.

"My dad was a very pragmatic man. And that wasn't going to fly."

Instead, she earned degrees in international relations and finance from American University and got a job at an international consulting firm in Cambridge.

There, she met a Harvard graduate student named Jeff. They both happened to be in a local restaurant and bar with friends. She had broken up with her boyfriend that afternoon. She and Jeff talked for hours that evening.

Ask in separate conversations what they liked about each other:

"She was a great conversationalist," he said.

"He's a very good listener," she said.

Penny worked at Fidelity with Jeff, but changed course before having their oldest son, Danny. She enrolled at Tufts University for an MFA in art history.

"I had no clue how hard it was going to be to raise babies and go to graduate school," said Penny. "I really wanted to get out of the finance world. That world is so invigorating to Jeffrey, and it just wasn't to me."

She enjoyed ancient Greek and Roman art, lost interest around the Middle Ages, picked back up around the impressionists through contemporary.

Her education changed how she saw the world. She trained her eye and mind to pick up details in life. Architecture. Gardening. Decorating. Party planning.

She became involved with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, eventually becoming a lifetime trustee. She also made the kids' Halloween costumes every year. Her favorite — Pooh, Piglet and Tigger.

In Tampa, she knew life would be more exposed.

"In Boston, we were very private, and we understood when Jeffrey was buying the team that that was going to change, and it has changed," she said. "I didn't know that he would be comfortable with it, but he really is.

"I'm not a natural or intuitive public speaker, but talking one-on-one and the social aspects, I have no problem with."

She has been at the forefront of organizing the Amalie's annual Celebration of the Arts, a juried exhibition with hundreds of works of local and regional art, bringing leaders from the most notable local museums.

She is also a trustee at the Tampa Museum of Art, heading the search committee that led to new executive director Michael Tomor.

Penny's business background and her art education help guide the museum, Tomor said. And in a universe that typically skews much older, he said, her age keeps her choices fresh.

"She's really smart in many, many ways," Tomor said. "In doing this, I think that she's helping us at the museum. She's helping say to people, art is for you. You can live it. You can breathe in it. You can play in it."

• • •

About those balls.

Getting them set up is a bigger production than a pop concert, Jeff has heard people say around the Amalie.

There are nine semi-trailers of plastic balls ordered from a company that makes toys. The balls are all new, Porto of Snarkitecture said. The ones used in the Washington exhibit went to another art project.

Here, the Beach will be twice as big as the last one. When it closes, the balls will be reused in another exhibit.

The plastic is antimicrobial, and the Washington event was reported disease-free, but for one curious case of pink eye. A bigger problem was lost cell phones, shoes and pocket change. For this, the Amalie is offering lockers.

Then, there is timing. Tickets have to be distributed in blocks so it never gets too crowded. The Viniks know flexibility is key, and adjustments will be needed.

"I didn't know how this would translate," Penny said. "I still don't know how its going to translate."

The thing about the balls, people who have tried them say, is that details fade away. Porto calls the mood "contemplative." You don't swim as much as float. You lose sight of your legs. There's a certain shimmer, and a weightlessness.

This time, Penny is going all the way in.

Contact Stephanie Hayes at (727) 893-8716 or shayes@tampabay.com. Follow @stephhayes.


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