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  1. Business

To create affordable housing, Jeff Vinik considers smaller apartments at downtown Tampa project

Jeff Vinik, owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning, says smaller units in his downtown Tampa project may appeal to younger renters. [EVE EDELHEIT | Times (2014)] 

There's nothing small about the $2 billion, 40-acre urban town center that Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik plans to build along downtown Tampa's waterfront.

Except, maybe, the size of some of the apartments.

In an effort to offer affordable housing, Vinik said Wednesday that he and his partners at billionaire Bill Gates' Cascade Investment fund are thinking about including some smaller-sized apartments among the 1,000 residential units planned in the first phase of their project.

"Price points are critical," Vinik told about 150 people at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club lunch at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club. Offering some smaller units may appeal to younger renters who, he said, spend relatively less time at home, anyway.

In cities like New York and San Francisco, developers are offering micro apartments as small as 300 square feet.

"I would not say never," Vinik said, but units that size don't "feel right to me. It feels too small for reality and this market."

Still, he said, "If you've seen some of the smaller units — I've toured them — they're amazingly efficiently laid out. It's surprising what you can do in 500 or 600 square feet, and it does make it affordable."

Affordability is a potential challenge Vinik said his project could face as its first phase unfolds over the next five years or so. (Coincidentally, a Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies report Tuesday said more than a quarter of Tampa Bay area renters pay at least half their income for housing, with little money left for necessities like health care.)

Other potential challenges include the rising costs of building materials and construction labor, along with the possibility that as hundreds of planned downtown apartments come online in the next several years, the rental market could get overbuilt for a while.

In conversations that Vinik has with Fortune 100 companies he's trying to interest in moving to the bay area, transportation comes up a lot, he said. Other potential challenges he hears include that some companies find the Tampa Bay area to be too far south and too far from the center of the country logistically, while some like the larger number of flights available from the Atlanta airport.

One concern Vinik used to hear more than he does now are questions about the quality of the bay area's workforce. That issue, he said, seems to have been addressed by the creation of workforce-oriented programs at local colleges and universities.

During his hour with the Tiger Bay Club, Vinik said 2016 will be a busy year as work starts in the spring on $30 million worth of road realignments, plus water, sewer, drainage and other infrastructure projects to support the development.

Those will include a centralized air-conditioning plant for the entire district, including the University of South Florida's planned medical school building. Vinik said that will free up rooftops for a variety of amenities like swimming pools, dog parks and restaurants.

As usual, Vinik was asked what kind of "secret plan" he had for the Tampa Bay Rays.

And, as usual, Vinik didn't indicate that he had any plan to become directly involved with the future of the team. (His plans include no space for a ballpark.) He did say, as he has before, that the Rays "have got to stay in this region."

If the team were to leave, he said, recruiting companies to move or expand here would get harder.

"The company's going to say, 'You can't keep baseball? Why should we come down?' " Vinik said.

When a club member complimented his outlook for being holistic and pragmatic about the region and asked whether Vinik could use his "considerable persuasive skills" to get the St. Petersburg City Council to see Rays-related issues as he does, Vinik said, "I will use my persuasive skills to stay the hell out of it."

The Tiger Bay Club's award for the toughest question of the day went to a query about what Vinik, who has contributed $200,000 to Gov. Rick Scott's Let's Get to Work political action committee, sees in a governor whose popularity ratings lag those of other governors.

In response, Vinik said he doesn't consider himself to be much of a political person.

"I try to stay out of it as much as I can," he said, adding that people can disagree about any elected official's policies. "But I tell you one thing I do love about this governor is that he's about economic growth, he's about bringing jobs to this state, that he goes and travels to other places around to try to accomplish that. … We have to be open and have our arms wide open for business and tell our story, and I think the governor does a great job of that."

Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times.

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