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Vinik to unveil vision for Tampa's Channelside area

TAMPA — The big day is finally here: Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik is set to reveal his vision for the future of downtown.

Vinik will hold an 11 a.m. news conference today to unveil his "billion-dollar" vision to transform the 24 barren acres of downtown land he owns into a walkable waterfront entertainment district stretching from the Tampa Convention Center to the Florida Aquarium.

New apartments, condos, restaurants, shops and offices will be added to the downtown empire Vinik has been assembling since he bought the hockey team in 2010: the Amalie Arena, Channelside Bay Plaza and the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina.

"Our vision is one of live, work, play — and stay," Lightning CEO Tod Leiweke told the Tampa Port Authority on Tuesday.

Leiweke and other top Vinik lieutenants gave the port governing board a tantalizing glimpse of the "Vinikville" vision. One aspect of the plan calls for building a continuous greenspace along the water to connect the convention center to Channelside Bay Plaza.

Some pieces of the plan are already in place: The University of South Florida will build its medical school there; Vinik has filed plans to build a hotel by the Marriott Waterside; and billionaire Bill Gates' investment fund is financing the project.

Other pieces remain up in the air, like a new name for the development and Channelside Bay Plaza. Team Vinik said they still haven't figured out what to do with the troubled complex, which they acquired this year.

Channelside is being fixed in the short term, but its long-term fate is undecided. It could be upgraded but remain basically the same. Part of it could be torn down, which is what Bill Edwards did to turn St. Petersburg's BayWalk into the new Sundial complex. Or Channelside could be demolished and a new structure would take its place.

That last option would be the most expensive and complicated option. There are existing leases in place, and the port would have to approve any changes made to Channelside.

Team Vinik hopes to have its Channelside plan ready by May to unveil to national retailers at the Global Retail Real Estate Convention in Las Vegas. Leiweke said the ultimate goal is to turn it into a destination for the throng of cruise passengers passing through Tampa.

"We want to figure out a way to get those passengers to stay longer, get here earlier and spend money at those retailers," Leiweke said.

Vinik's executives also announced a new restaurant will open at Channelside in January, but the name won't be revealed until the news conference. It will be the first new tenant at the outdoor mall in 3½ years.

As part of the Vinik plan, his company also wanted the Tampa Port Authority to let it take control of the Channelside parking garage and parking lot. That ignited the most contentious exchange the normally cordial Tampa Port Authority board has had in months.

The board was asked to approve a contract to let Vinik run Channelside's parking facilities in exchange for 70 percent of the after-tax parking revenue. Vinik also wanted the right to hold events like a farmer's market on the lot.

"Mayor (Bob) Buckhorn and I fought hard for this contract," said Hillsborough County Commission Chairwoman Sandra Murman. Both she and the mayor sit on the port board.

Murman wanted the board to quickly bless the parking contract. But when board member John B. Grandoff III had questions, Murman would not yield the floor.

"I would appreciate the courtesy of being able to ask a question of a concession agreement," Grandoff said.

After a brief standoff, Murman relented. Grandoff wanted to make sure the cruise industry's interest in the parking facilities was protected. The port's attorney, Charles Klug, said the cruise ship industry would still have priority when it comes to Channelside parking.

But there was another reason why the port wanted to let Vinik run the parking operation along with Channelside itself.

"There needs to be a nexus between the owner-operator of the retail center and the parking lot," Klug said. "We've been operating the parking garage for the last 15 years. There seems to be a disconnect between the retail center and the parking garage."

That's a bit of an understatement: The port's management of the parking facilities has long been a major issue with Channelside's owners over the years.

After the meeting, Grandoff said he was satisfied with the parking deal but would continue scrutinizing the Channelside parking lot because it is one of the last undeveloped waterfront parcels in downtown Tampa — and thus one of the most valuable. Various developers have sought to build a condo tower on top of that 5-acre parcel.

Vinik's Channelside parking deal doesn't include development rights to that land — not yet, anyway. But Team Vinik was clearly interested in one day developing those 5 acres.

"That's a long-term conversation" said Vinik executive Jac Sperling.

Contact Jamal Thalji at or (813) 226-3404. Follow @jthalji.