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Lightning, Hillsborough to split $25 million cost for Amalie Arena upgrades

Published Mar. 5, 2015

TAMPA — The Tampa Bay Lightning and owner Jeff Vinik unveiled details Wednesday on a $25 million renovation of Amalie Arena, completing what the team calls an "arena makeover" that started in 2011.

The details followed a unanimous vote by Hillsborough County commissioners to split the cost of upcoming renovations on the county-owned facility, reimbursing Vinik $12.5 million after renovations are completed during the next two summers. The county's share will be paid by a tourist tax on hotel beds.

Renovation plans include a nearly complete reconstruction of the club level that will add up to 160 loge seats at the arena's north end, new concession stands with computerized menu boards, rebuilt restrooms and an expanded exterior deck on the club level.

The team also is doubling in size two club-level lofts, areas separate from public seating that will allow groups of up to 80 people to attend events together.

Fans won't see other upgrades. Those include modernization of locker and performer rooms, in addition to media and hospitality areas. Those areas have remained unchanged for the arena's entire life, the team said.

County officials say the modernization will allow the nearly 20-year-old arena to remain one of the top venues nationally in attracting leading entertainment acts and sporting events.

"These events and tournaments have an enormous economic impact on our community," Commissioner Ken Hagan said. "But do not kid yourself. The Amalie Arena is nice. But we are competing with newer facilities . . . and that competition is fierce."

The county funds will be used to upgrade arena infrastructure, including mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems, according to the team. "Fan-facing upgrades" will be financed by the team.

The team has spent $60 million upgrading Amalie Arena in the past four years. Under previous ownership, the county had agreed to pay $35 million in renovation costs. Lightning president Steve Griggs said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times that continual investment will be needed to keep the venue competitive. He noted that a full club-level area for fans was contemplated when the arena was built in the mid 1990s but was not constructed.

"Our goal is always to keep it as one of the top buildings in North America," he said. "And we're going to have to continue to push to make it one of the best buildings in North American from the fan experience standpoint, from the technology standpoint, and from the functionality standpoint."

In return for the county's money, Vinik agreed to keep the team in Tampa until at least May 2021, and would be subject to a $5 million penalty if he moves the team after that date and before the team's lease expires in 2027. The previous agreement allowed Vinik to move the team before 2021 if it paid a financial penalty, Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill said.

Back in 2010, Vinik used the fortune he built as a star hedge fund manager on Wall Street to buy the Lightning and the arena lease for what is believed to be $110 million. The team has said he has spent $60 million to fix the arena and millions more to buy up land around it.

Vinik is planning to transform the 24-plus acres he assembled around the home arena of his hockey team into a mixed-use entertainment district, a development that the team said could exceed $1 billion.

"We want to make this building work and stand the test of time," Lightning CEO Tod Leiweke told commissioners. "But it's going to require smart investment and a smart plan to make that happen, and this is a great step."

Commissioner Victor Crist said he supported the plan because the county share was funded by tourist dollars and not property taxes. And the team, he said, helps attract tourists who spend money in the county. That leads to higher tourist tax revenues beyond the $12 million the county is committing on renovations, he said.

"So this is obviously a no-brainer," Crist said.

In other business, commissioners unanimously approved a $2.1 million incentive package for Johnson & Johnson, a Fortune 500 company that is considering investing in a "shared services headquarters operation" in the county.

The firm said it is considering investing in an up-to-$23.5 million project in Hillsborough that would bring up to 700 jobs averaging $75,000 in salary. The deal will depend on a state incentive package of $7 million by Enterprise Florida, the state's job recruiting agency.

The company is considering expanding in other states, county officials said. They did not provide a timetable for the company's decision.

Times staff writer Jamal Thalji contributed to this report. Contact William R. Levesque at (813) 226-3432 or levesque@tampabay.com.

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