Jeff Vinik's $1 billion plan for downtown Tampa finally revealed

An artist's rendering shows what the southern end of downtown Tampa will look like once Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik's new project is complete, bringing 3 million square feet of new development around Amalie Arena. [Strategic Property Partners LLC]
An artist's rendering shows what the southern end of downtown Tampa will look like once Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik's new project is complete, bringing 3 million square feet of new development around Amalie Arena. [Strategic Property Partners LLC]
Published Dec. 26, 2014

TAMPA — Roads that don't meet. An incomplete skyline. An empty crater at the heart of the city.

For decades, downtown has been an unfinished work in progress.

Jeff Vinik wants to fix that.

The Tampa Bay Lighting owner on Wednesday rolled out his long-awaited $1 billion "vision plan" to build nearly 3 million square feet of development along the city's waterfront.

"What we're doing is completing the plan city planners dreamed up long ago," Vinik told an approving throng of VIPs who gathered at his Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina for the glitzy unveiling.

The project will be built in phases and will take up to a decade to complete. By then, Vinik envisions downtown transformed by a new urban medical school, corporate headquarters, condos, hotel, meeting space, and shops and restaurants.

There's no room for a baseball stadium in Vinik's new development. But there is for the University of South Florida's new downtown medical school and heart institute, a project that will seek state funding in January.

"It is singularly one of the most important things that will occur in our lifetime," said Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who has called the urban medical campus "bigger than baseball."

From the Tampa Convention Center to the Florida Aquarium, the southern end of downtown would become the city's new entertainment district. But Vinik hopes that it will be more than that: a new biotech hub, a new office center, a new neighborhood, a new waterfront.

Vinik owns 30 acres downtown and controls another 10. More than a dozen new buildings will rise there and will be melded with his existing properties: the Marriott Waterside, Channelside Bay Plaza and the center of his real estate empire, the Amalie Arena.

"We are creating a true 18-7, live, work, play and stay area," said Vinik, who often jokes that he doesn't say 24-7 because people need to sleep. "We want people to stay in an area with vibrancy, with energy, with fun."

Strategic Property Partners LLC, the Vinik-controlled firm overseeing the project, said it could inject $900 million of economic output into the local economy and create 3,700 jobs in Hillsborough County. It could also add $35 million in new tax revenue a year.

Driving the project is Vinik, the former Wall Street star who bought the Lightning in 2010. Soon after he bought the team, he started buying the vacant land around the arena. Then he assembled a team of real estate experts and traveled the country to research the vision that was laid out Wednesday.

"This is our vision plan," Vinik said. "This is not a master plan."

That's why he's asking for public input to "crowdsource" his project and help shape the final details through a new website,

"We will be smarter a year from now," Vinik said. "We have to be flexible and open-minded."

The project's primary financier is Cascade Investment LLC, the personal investment fund of the world's richest man, Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates. Vinik refused to answer questions about that financial arrangement, including how much of his own money and how much of Cascade's money is financing the project. He also didn't rule out taking on more investors.

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Whatever problems the project may encounter, Vinik said money won't be one of them.

"We do have the financing to complete this billion-dollar project," Vinik said, "and hopefully go beyond when it's done."

But Team Vinik will also seek taxpayer funds to help pay for fixing the street grid, stormwater work, landscaping and streetscaping. His firm will propose spending $25 million to $30 million on that and then be reimbursed by the Downtown Community Redevelopment Area, or CRA, which allows property taxes to be reinvested into the area they came from.

"We think the return on (public) investment will be very high," said SPP's chief operating officer, Jim Shimberg Jr., who was Tampa's city attorney before joining Vinik.

Team Vinik also wants city and county officials to help get downtown's struggling trolley system on the right track — and extend that track to the north end of downtown, by the museums. The trolley needs to run more frequently so more people will use it, Vinik said, but service was cut because ridership was low. The mayor echoed that goal.

Vinik is also chasing a big corporate relocation to help launch the office component of his plan. That will require more public investment in the form of incentives from Enterprise Florida and the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. to attract new companies.

But Vinik himself will be a part of that push. He vowed to travel the country to sell corporations on the joys of Tampa Bay life — great weather, friendly folks — that the former Boston resident discovered when he moved his family and his businesses down here.

"I'm going to talk about why I live here and why this is a misunderstood place," Vinik said. "People up in the Northeast don't have a full appreciation of that."

Design work hasn't started on the project, but key details were revealed:

• Team Vinik wants to extend Tampa's Riverwalk to the Tampa Bay History Center by adding a boardwalk along the mangroves of Cotanchobee Fort Brooke Park. That waterfront boardwalk would also add space for boats and other recreational water uses. Doctors and medical students could also use ferries to get from Tampa General Hospital to USF's campus.

• The plan calls for adding a small waterfront park to the back of the Channelside Bay Plaza parking lot. Vinik's team is already planning to hold events like a farmers market there.

• But other decisions have yet to be made. Vinik's group is still unsure of what to do with Channelside itself. In the short-term, the southwest end of the building could be knocked down to link it to the new park. But in the long-term, even bigger changes could be coming.

• Team Vinik will also have to figure out what to call the new development. The area is often called "Channelside" after the outdoor mall, but that's also a reminder of the complex's history of financial and legal troubles.

"If in our crowdsourcing someone comes up with a kick-a-- name and it resonates with this community," Vinik said, "you know that we'll listen."

The first construction work will start this summer, after hockey season, to start fixing the street grid where USF's new medical school will go up at the corner of Channelside Drive and S Meridian Avenue. Once USF gets state funding, the medical school could start construction in 2016 and be done by 2018. Vinik has also pledged to build a medical office tower next door and a parking garage to service the medical school.

Residential developments could go up next. But Vinik will likely wait for corporate tenants before starting work on the two other office towers in his plan.

"We have no plans to build an office building on spec," he said.

Downtown Tampa, by the way, hasn't had a new office tower built in 22 years.

Vinik was asked about potential setbacks — say, what if the state doesn't fund USF's new medical school?

"Then that night I'll have three glasses of wine, dust off my brain cells and we'll go get somebody else there," Vinik said. "If things don't work out, what can you do? We'll keep moving forward."

Times staff writer Caitlin Johnston contributed to this report. Contact Jamal Thalji at or (813) 226-3404. Follow @jthalji.