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Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik's downtown plans not just for charity

Jayden Hyland, 10, of Tampa waves his Tampa Bay Lightning flag during an NHL preseason game against the Dallas Stars at the Amalie Arena in Tampa on Friday. The Lightning has not turned a profit since Jeff Vinik bought the franchise in 2010. 
Jayden Hyland, 10, of Tampa waves his Tampa Bay Lightning flag during an NHL preseason game against the Dallas Stars at the Amalie Arena in Tampa on Friday. The Lightning has not turned a profit since Jeff Vinik bought the franchise in 2010. 
Published Sep. 27, 2014

TAMPA

Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik wants to create a vibrant urban district in his adopted hometown that will rival any city in the nation.

It will be a place with "a soul and a spirit," said Lightning CEO Tod Leiweke.

That feng shui, though, also comes with a bottom-line business plan.

That's because the Lightning owner's team is still unprofitable.

To reverse that, Team Vinik is trying to bring in major employers like corporate and educational tenants to support his hockey franchise and downtown redevelopment project. It's a plan that now has the backing of billionaire Bill Gates' personal investment fund.

Leiweke said Tampa Bay is an "unconventional market" for an NHL team, the "marketplace is spread out" and that there's not "tons and tons" of corporate support. The Tampa Bay Rays have similar concerns about the market for baseball in St. Petersburg.

The key to making the Lighting money, Leiweke said, is to lure major employers to set up shop around Amalie Arena. That will bring people who will live, work, shop, eat and drink in the Channel District — and buy hockey tickets.

Leiweke almost sounded like an economic development official when he pledged that they will convince a major corporation to relocate its headquarters to the Channel District.

"We're going to land a company," Leiweke said. "There's no doubt in my mind."

Vinik is planning to transform the 24-plus acres he assembled around the home arena of his hockey team into a mixed-use entertainment district. That plan recently attracted a prominent financier: Cascade Investment LLC, which manages Gates' fortune.

Vinik's people are still assembling a master plan to redevelop his Channel District holdings. They plan to finish and unveil it by year's end. Then, Leiweke said, they'll go on the road, pitching Vinikville as a new home to major corporations and institutions.

"When we're really open for business is when we publish our master plan," Leiweke said, "then we can show prospective partners, we can show the CEOs, how it all fits together."

Vinik's people tried that last month with the failed deal to bring the Tampa headquarters of mobile communications company Syniverse Holdings to his downtown portfolio. They're also talking to the University of South Florida about bringing a new medical school to downtown to become a part of Vinik's project.

But that's just the start of Vinik's efforts to attract major employers.

Convincing corporations to relocate to Tampa is Rick Homas' job description as leader of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. He said the Vinik project has the potential to attract Fortune 500 companies to downtown Tampa.

"These kinds of opportunities don't come along very often where you have a blank canvas like they have in this part of downtown Tampa," Homan said, "and you have an owner and developer wanting to work with a corporate headquarters to give them the kind of prominence and signature ownership of that development that a lot of headquarters are looking for to improve and enhance their identity."

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Vinik has become one of the community's most prominent and charitable figures since moving his family here from Boston and buying the Lighting in 2010. But Mayor Bob Buckhorn said Vinik also expects to make money on his investments in the Lightning and the redevelopment of the Channel District.

"This is not a charitable venture," the mayor said. "This is clearly someone who expects a return on his investment and I think he will get one."

Back in 2010, Vinik used the fortune he built as a star hedge fund manager on Wall Street to buy the Lightning and the arena lease for what is believed to be $110 million. The team said he has spent $65 million to fix the arena, and millions more to buy up land around it.

But four years later, Leiweke said: "We're still losing money."

The team, however, would not disclose those numbers.

Last year, Vinik's personal net worth was estimated at about $500 million. The Lightning said that Vinik is supporting the team out of his own pocket. But the team doesn't want that situation to continue.

"You can complain about the weather all you want," Leiweke said, "or you can say, hey, we're going to go fix this."

Buckhorn would love to see companies or a medical school join Vinik's project. But he said that's not the only way Vinik can get a return on his investments.

"Creating a district that brings people to the (arena) and more importantly brings them in early and gives them a reason to stay late," Buckhorn said, "will increase the value of his holdings."

Leiweke said that if Team Vinik does its job right, then the Channel District redevelopment project could become one of the biggest economic development projects in Tampa Bay.

"The ultimate thing we can do for this community is to make it commercially viable," Leiweke said. "When this becomes a commercial-grade investment, we will have done a phenomenal thing for this city. We will have created thousands of jobs. We will have created ad valorem tax (value.)

"If this is just benevolence and charity, it will ultimately fail."

Times staff writer Rick Danielson and Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Jamal Thalji at thalji@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3404. Follow @jthalji.