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Jeff Vinik, partners file details for 400-room hotel near the Tampa Bay Times Forum

Published May 23, 2014

TAMPA — Jeff Vinik's hockey team is in better shape, on and off the ice, and so is the building it plays in. Now the Tampa Bay Lightning owner is ready to focus on his properties in the surrounding Channel District.

That's why he and his partners filed a rezoning application Thursday with the city to build a proposed 400-room hotel on a parking lot at the corner of S Florida Avenue and Old Water Street, just west of the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

"I've been waiting for this one," said Mayor Bob Buckhorn. "This is good."

Vinik spent four years assembling his downtown Tampa empire. He bought the Lightning and the Times Forum lease in 2010, then slowly acquired 23 acres of nearby empty land. But his plans for all that property have long been shrouded in speculation.

Buckhorn believes that Thursday was a sign: Vinik is finally ready to show his hand.

"I think (Vinik) moving forward with this decision really sends a great signal to the market," he said.

Vinik's first concrete step will be to develop that 2.9-acre parking lot, which he acquired with the hockey team in 2010.

"When the core business gets stable enough, we knew there would be an opportunity to start thinking about doing other things," said Lightning CEO Tod Leiweke. "Today is the first step in that journey."

Leiweke said that financially the Lightning haven't reached the "break even point" yet, but that the team is no longer losing money at "unsustainable levels." He said Vinik wanted to make sure his NHL team was on sound footing before developing his land holdings.

Along with the 400 hotel rooms, preliminary plans call for the new building to have 50 residential units on the top floors and 175,000 square feet of meeting space below.

There will also be 273 parking spots (a parking garage is still an option) and 45,000 square feet of retail space on the ground floor, according to documents filed with the city.

Conceptual drawings depict restaurants, streetside cafes and a covered walkway leading to the Times Forum. Leiweke said the concept of combining a sports venue and hotel is proving popular around the country.

One example is L.A. Live, an entertainment, hotel, residential and retail complex built around the Staples Center in Los Angeles that Vinik has pitched in the past. A smaller example: Buffalo is building HARBORCenter, a mixed-used hotel and retail concept across the street from the First Niagara Center, home of the NHL's Sabres.

Vinik's new hotel will also be near the Tampa Convention Center, so it will attract vacationing hockey fans as well as convention business.

"There's a lot of reasons why this can complement what he has at the Forum as well as complement the Convention Center and capture that market right there," Buckhorn said.

The proposed building could have up to 25 floors. Its height will be capped at 325 feet. That would be about as tall as the 326-foot Marriott Waterside across the street. That hotel, opened in 2000, has 27 floors and 719 rooms.

But all those details could change. Vinik's proposed hotel doesn't have a hotel chain, or "flag," signed up yet. Tampa economic opportunity administrator Bob McDonaugh said the rezoning application sets up the maximum structure that can be built on the site.

"To get a flag you have to say 'I have this land, I can build this high and this big,' " McDonaugh said. "That allows you to engage with hotel companies to see what works."

While Vinik's plans for this site were made public Thursday, Leiweke would not comment on the other 20 acres, which is north and east of the Times Forum.

That land happens to be Buckhorn's dream site for a downtown Tampa baseball stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays, who are still under contract to play in St. Petersburg. Vinik has remained tight-lipped about the Rays or Tampa's baseball hopes. He could also probably make more money putting more mixed-use development on that land than a stadium.

Still, Leiweke said they're not ready to discuss those plans just yet.

"Today is not meant to be a grand announcement of any grand intentions," he said.

Times staff writer Richard Danielson and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3404. Follow him on Twitter @jthalji.

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