TAMPA — Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik got a full range of questions Friday at a Tampa Tiger Bay Club lunch:
What's the story with re-signing team captain Steven Stamkos? Does he support an expansion of the downtown Tampa interchange for Interstate 275? Would he lead a group of business leaders to campaign for better transit?
"Maybe," Vinik told about 125 club members in response to that last question about transit.
In answers that touched on local politics, urban planning and his efforts to recruit Fortune 500 companies to Tampa, Vinik developed a clear theme: He has a $1 billion project planned for his 40 acres around Amalie Arena. If he succeeds, it will lift Tampa in many ways. But to pull it off, he needs to make it his first priority.
"We want to be responsible citizens," Vinik said, acknowledging he has considered whether to get more involved in local discussions about transit. But we also want to keep the focus on what's directly in front of us."
Here are some of the questions from the lunch, with Vinik's answers:
What's going on with Stamkos' contract?
"I figured that question might come up," Vinik said. He then went off on a tangent, only to pull up with mock innocence, "I forgot the question."
Vinik said he gives Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman a budget, holds him accountable for the results but has promised him that he has 100 percent authority to run the team.
"It's a long way of saying I have a full confidence that Steve will figure out the deal with Stammer," he said.
On a scale of one to 10, how close does Vinik feel to signing a big corporate headquarters?
"I think I'll regret it if I answer that question with a number," Vinik said. But he said he's talking to a lot of people, including a lot of executives in the Northeast, where he worked as a hedge fund manager.
A few companies that recently decided to move somewhere else in the Southeast had Tampa on their short list, he said. One started with 47 prospects, and Tampa made it to the final five.
"We are getting closer and we are resonating," he said. "There are several major prospects out there we are having discussions with."
But Vinik said people should not focus only on landing a Fortune 500 headquarters. It would be great, and he thinks it will happen in the next year or two, but it also would be good to land smaller pieces of big companies that bring high-paying jobs.
"Let's not turn away 2,000 high-paying jobs because it happens to be a regional headquarters," he said.
Does Vinik support the Florida Department of Transportation's planned expansion of Tampa's I-275 downtown interchange? (A representative of his land development company, Strategic Property Partners, told the Metropolitan Planning Organization in August that the company did support the Tampa Bay Express project.)
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"I'm talking to a lot of companies, and the No. 1 thought on their mind is, 'How do we move our employees around this area?' " he said. "I think everything is on the table when you look at improving the horizontal flow of workers in this area as well as visitors as well as people who are living here and doing their shopping."
The area's population is growing at 1.5 percent per year and could grow at 2.5 percent per year, he said.
"Huge growth," he said. "We've got to think ahead for transportation, and it's going to require a lot of different means to move all these people around."
How could Vinik manage to bring the Museum of Science and Industry, a big complex of buildings and parking lots near USF, to his downtown project near Tampa's waterfront?
That's "the biggest issue we've discussed with the board of directors of MOSI," Vinik said.
The decision ultimately belongs to MOSI and Hillsborough County, which owns the E Fowler Avenue property. But he said a feasibility study is about to start. One big consideration: How to accommodate the children MOSI gets for its camps?
"What's going to happen to those 4,000 kids?" he said. If a newer, better downtown facility is possible, "we sure better have that transportation working well to bring the people from North Tampa, from north Hillsborough County to downtown."
Why doesn't Vinik get more involved in political issues that could help Tampa's most impoverished neighborhoods and workers with little income mobility?
"Put yourself in my position," he said. In pursuing a project that could be worth $1 billion or more, "we think not only will it directly benefit downtown … we think this rising tide will lift all boats of this area."
Assuming that, he said, "we need broad support in general to do this, and we need to listen and to talk to people. If you were me, would you come out strongly on political questions, voice strong opinions? … If we were to wade into this too deeply," it would "take the focus off what we're trying to do."