TAMPA — Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik likes to think of himself as the chief cheerleader for the Tampa Bay region.
That's music to the ears of local tourism boosters, who listened to Vinik speak to a room of more than 1,000 tourism industry professionals at the Governor's Conference on Tourism at the Tampa Bay Convention Center on Tuesday morning.
Vinik shared his high-profile plans to redevelop 40 acres of downtown Tampa into a "live-work-play" destination. That includes walkable parks, new condominium and hotel development, office space and streetside restaurant and retail space. This was the first time Vinik has spoken publicly about his plans for Tampa in several months.
"There's no place quite like it anywhere else," Vinik said. "It's a great place to live, to visit and to do business. If I had to brand Tampa Bay, I'd say it's the most welcoming region."
Vinik has made it his personal mission to improve Tampa since he purchased the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey team in 2010. Through a partnership with Bill Gates' billion-dollar investment fund, Cascade Investment, he's ready to spend $1 billion on improving Tampa's core around Amalie Arena.
"Amenities are key. I want residents to be able to do yoga in the park. I want USF medical students to be able to take a water taxi to their teaching hospital on Davis Islands," Vinik said.
As a part of his keynote address Tuesday, Vinik unveiled new images of a four-star hotel he plans to add to the mix. He declined to comment further than showing off the renderings.
The former Wall Street stock analyst told tour operators and visitors bureau personnel from destinations across the state that he had no real plans to transform Tampa Bay when he decided he wanted to buy a hockey team.
It just happened.
He started with two vacant lots in downtown Tampa at a time when the city's urban core was barren and economically depressed. Over time he accumulated 40 acres and the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel. Now he owns or leases more than 1 million square feet of waterfront and developable space.
Vinik's vision has slowly begun taking shape. The University of South Florida is opening a medical school campus in downtown Tampa. The Museum of Science and Industry is considering a move to downtown. His Strategic Property Partners will open a medical office and parking garage. He wants to open another tower for office space. Maybe two.
This development, and the recent success of the Tampa Bay Lightning's run to the 2015 NHL Stanley Cup final, is just more ways to market Tampa Bay as a tourism destination, said Santiago Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay.
"We continue to smash bed tax collection records and are constantly placing in the top three for revenue (per available room) for a city of our size," Corrada said while addressing the crowds at the tourism conference Tuesday.
Tourism professionals spent Monday evening touring some of the local attractions — including taking a tour of Cigar City Brewing and sampling restaurants in Ybor City.
"Tampa Bay is becoming a culinary experience. Restaurants are opening here almost every day. That will play a part in downtown too," Vinik said. "We want to create a real downtown district for Tampa. It's a very exciting time."
Contact Justine Griffin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.