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Where others saw Tampa's vacant waterfront, Jeff Vinik saw potential

A 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 the Amalie Arena.
A 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 the Amalie Arena.
Published Dec. 26, 2014

TAMPA — In 2010, a Boston hedge fund manager bought a failing hockey franchise, the lease to its arena and some vacant land next to it.

That's because Jeff Vinik saw something in the Tampa Bay Lightning.

"Others looked at the team and saw challenge and peril," team CEO Tod Leiweke said. "He looked at it and saw opportunity."

Then Vinik looked around the waterfront arena — it fronted a barren patchwork of parking lots and broken asphalt — and saw even more potential.

So Vinik started buying that up, too.

That's how an initial 5.5 acres turned to 27 acres.

That's how Vinik went from buying the Lightning and the Amalie Arena lease to also acquiring Channelside Bay Plaza and the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina.

That's how Vinik ended up controlling 40 acres of downtown that he now plans to transform into a billion-dollar waterfront development.

That's how it all started: Vinik saw the opportunity.

• • •

Vinik had no grand vision for Tampa back then.

He was a Wall Street rock star before he bought the team, a stock-picking guru who managed billions. And like a rock star, he'd had his ups and downs in the market.

He was also a hockey fanatic who had turned 50 and wanted to do something else with his life. He bought the team and moved his family and his business from Boston to Tampa.

It's estimated that Vinik paid $110 million for the team and the arena lease. He had to salvage the team's finances, upgrade its home arena and change a dysfunctional culture.

There was plenty to do inside the arena. But what was outside the arena intrigued him.

"It was very soon after buying the team, it became clear that this was downtown land, this was a great opportunity here," said Vinik, now 55. "I thought the price was reasonable. Even if we didn't develop it over time, it will appreciate."

In 2011 he and his partners paid $6.8 million for 7 acres. In 2012, they bought 5 acres for $9.5 million. The price has gone up. This month, they paid $18 million for 4 acres.

Leiweke said that by buying that land, Vinik saw another chance to enhance the fortunes of his hockey team.

The better the area did, the better the team would do — and vice versa.

"He just felt that as the neighborhood went," Leiweke said, "so did the team."

• • •

The idea seems obvious: buy up a bunch of vacant land along the waterfront of an economically depressed downtown, wait for the economy to improve, then redevelop it.

"It wasn't so obvious then," said Jac Sperling, one of Vinik's top real estate executives and a member of his inner circle.

"All of us walk by and we could see all the land there hasn't been developed. But Jeff walks by and sees all this land undeveloped, with water on three sides, near downtown, across from an arena. He said, 'Let's go see if we can buy it.'

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"We didn't know if we would be able to do it when we started. We didn't know if we would have success. It didn't happen quickly. It took us three to four years."

The more they acquired, the more they could do with it, the grander the vision became.

Vinik assembled real estate experts and urban planners. He traveled the country, taking meetings, examining cities, figuring out what would and wouldn't work in Tampa.

His vision started to take shape: a downtown medical school, a corporate headquarters, a new hotel. There would be room to live, shop, work and have a good time. He would build an entertainment district, a business hub and an urban neighborhood around the arena.

Vinik always was a fast learner. He majored in engineering at Duke, but never became an engineer. Instead, he went to Harvard to get his MBA and became a stock analyst.

By age 33, he was running the world's largest mutual fund.

"He's an incredible assimilator of information," Leiweke said. "He reads. He retains. He listens. It's part of why I feel like we're going to make good decisions going forward."

• • •

Vinik has been on a wild ride since he bought the Lightning nearly five years ago. He has gone from Wall Street to professional hockey to real estate development.

His approach — whether picking stocks or buying vacant lots — has been the same: Grab the opportunity. Study the options. Get ready for whatever happens next.

"When I was involved in the stock market people would ask, 'Where do you think the market is going to be in a year or two?' " Vinik said. "I always said the same thing: I have no idea. All I do is play the cards as they come out of the deck, and you use all the information you have to make the best decision you can. But you don't always know in which direction things are going to go.

"Until five years ago, I had no idea I was going to buy a hockey team. I had no idea I was going to be living in Tampa Bay. I had no idea I was going to be working on a billion-dollar real estate deal development.

"I think it's more fun to let things flow in a natural progression and where you end up, you end up."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Jamal Thalji at thalji@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3404. Follow @jthalji.

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