TAMPA — The City Council on Thursday unanimously approved a rezoning for a 400-room hotel proposed near Amalie Arena by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik.
At about 25 stories, the hotel is planned to go up on a 2.8-acre parking lot at the corner of S Florida Avenue and Old Water Street.
With tourism booming and revenues from the hotel bed tax setting records, Mayor Bob Buckhorn said downtown Tampa is ready for the project.
"It's needed. I think it will be successful," Buckhorn said. "I think the demand is there, and clearly this will be of benefit to the convention center."
Along with its guest rooms, the hotel is expected to include 170,000 square feet of meeting space, shops and restaurants on the ground floor and 50 penthouse apartments or condominiums.
Along with building the new hotel, Vinik is believed to be working on a purchase of the neighboring Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina. Buckhorn, for one, said he has talked to Vinik's associates about their plans to make an offer for the Marriott.
Meanwhile, Vinik's company announced last week that an investment fund created by billionaire Microsoft founder Bill Gates would help finance the development of Vinik's land near the arena.
Since buying the team in 2010, Vinik has assembled 24 acres around the arena and purchased the Channelside Bay Plaza shopping center. He has said he plans to make public a master development plan for his holdings in coming months.
For the new hotel, Vinik's development team asked and the council agreed to waive 11 land development rules on tree removal, truck access and parking. Most of the hotel's parking will be in space leased at the city's South Regional Parking Garage next door.
Now that the rezoning is in place, Vinik's representatives have said they can work with prospective hotel operators and refine plans for the project.
"It's a complex building," said Bob Abberger, the managing director of development for Vinik and his business partners. "Just to get to commercial site plan approval and design on a project of that scale is probably 10 months' worth of work.
"We're anxious, as the community is, to see something happen there," he said of the hotel, which is part of Vinik's larger multi-project master plan. "But I think the next year will primarily be focused on master infrastructure and moving these projects to a point where perhaps we can see action in 2016."
New police shooting range approved
The council also approved spending nearly $4.8 million for a new police shooting range and firearms training facility. Including previously approved funding, the total project cost is almost $5.4 million.
That was too much for council member Yvonne Yolie Capin, who asked to postpone the decision until Nov. 6 for more discussion but was outvoted by her colleagues.
"Five million is a lot of money," Capin said. Mary Mulhern raised similar concerns, including that the project can be seen as another step in "militarizing" the police.
The other five council members approved the project, which police said would allow officers to train more often and be better prepared for high-risk confrontations.
"It's going to save lives or injuries in the future," Sgt. Jarrett Seal told the council. Assistant Chief John Bennett said recent research shows that increased training reduced police shootings in Richmond, Va.
The firing range will be built in an industrial area behind the city's McKay Bay trash incinerator.
The city will pay Integra Construction Group of Tampa about $4.1 million to design and build the facility, which will have nearly 60 shooting lanes and three buildings, including a "shoot house" where officers will be able to simulate training scenarioes.
Another $689,000 will go to Action Target of Provo, Utah for a bullet recovery and target system to be installed at the range.
Police do not expect noise to be a problem. In a test, a dozen or more officers went to the site and shot at targets while a sound consultant measured noise levels at points on a half-mile radius. The consultant found that in populated areas closest to the range, noise from traffic was louder than gunfire.
Tampa's 994 sworn officers are required by the state to meet qualification standards with their service weapons once a year.
For years, they've done their training and certifications at the Hillsborough County sheriff's range in Lithia.
But officials say that can create serious problems. In 2001, when a bank robber killed Master Patrol Officer Lois Marrero and took a hostage, the SWAT team was training in Lithia an hour away.
Over time, the new range is expected to save money as well as time. The current costs of transportation, range fees and officer time for making the hourlong drive to and from the Lithia range has been estimated at up to $265,000 a year.
Money for the project will come from Tampa's law enforcement trust fund, which consists of cash seized from drug dealers and other felons.
Council opposes ban on gay marriage
The council also voted unanimously to join St. Petersburg, Orlando, Miami Beach and other cities in several lawsuits that seek to overturn Florida's ban on gay marriage.
"I thought it was important for the city of Tampa to also weigh in on that," said council member Lisa Montelione, who made the motion to schedule Thursday's discussion. "We want to make sure that rights are protected and that everyone is offered the same equality under the purview of the city of Tampa."
The council's vote effectively presents a unified front on the issue, since Buckhorn already has said Tampa will support the lawsuits.
"At this point, we've let Miami Beach" — the lead government in the litigation — "know that we intend to go ahead and allow them to name us as one of the member governments," City Attorney Julia Mandell said before the council meeting.
Florida added the ban on same-sex marriages to the state Constitution after 62 percent of voters approved it in 2008.
Miami Beach's attorneys, with other cities in support, have argued that the ban hurts public health and welfare, interferes with local governments' roles as employers and drives away tourists.
This year, four judges have overturned the ban as unconstitutional, though one later vacated his ruling because of a procedural flaw in the case. A fifth made a more narrow ruling upholding death benefits in Palm Beach County for a widower from a same-sex couple married out of state.
In response, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has appealed some of the rulings and asked state judges to put the cases on hold until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the issue.
Contact Richard Danielson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times