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  1. Florida Politics

Jeff Vinik hires Tallahassee lobbyists amid talk of USF med school move

TAMPA — Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik has hired heavy-hitting lobbyist Brian Ballard and two others to represent his interests in Tallahassee.

A Lightning spokesman would not comment Tuesday on the goals to be given the lobbyists, who weren't talking much, either.

But it would come as no surprise for them to lobby the Legislature for millions of dollars for a new downtown medical school for the University of South Florida — a project USF is considering putting on Vinik's land near Amalie Arena.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn assumes Vinik hired the lobbyists for that purpose.

"I don't know that for a fact, but I've got to believe that he may try and help the process as best he can, as will I," he said.

On Monday, Buckhorn met with one of City Hall's lobbyists, William Peebles, telling him that funding for a downtown medical school is "the city's top priority" for next spring's legislative session.

USF assistant vice president for government relations Mark Walsh said he hadn't heard that Vinik had expanded his lobbying team, but "if they want to work with us,'' he said, "we always welcome the help."

Along with Ballard, Vinik's companies hired Ballard's associate Greg Turbeville and attorney-lobbyist Mark Logan, who has worked with Ballard in the past. Brandon-based lobbyist Ronald Pierce, who already had worked with the Lightning and the arena, also is part of the expanded team.

A state lobbying registry indicates Ballard, Turbeville and Logan will represent the Lightning, Strategic Property Partners, Vinik's real estate holding company, and Tampa Bay Sports & Entertainment LLC, the parent company of the Lightning, the Tampa Bay Storm and Amalie Arena.

Ballard said it's too early to start talking about the work, but he's impressed with Vinik.

"I'm excited about the potential he brings for downtown Tampa," Ballard said.

Vinik has bought 24 acres around the arena, plus the Channelside Bay Plaza shopping center. He has said a master plan is coming soon.

In the last three weeks, Vinik's companies paid $150 million to buy the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina and rezoned a neighboring site for a new 400-room hotel. They also announced that financing for the master plan would come from an investment fund created by billionaire Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

Still, a downtown medical school is seen as a potential anchor for a pedestrian-friendly live-work-and-play project that would extend from the Tampa Convention Center to the Florida Aquarium.

Last week, a Florida Board of Governors committee told USF administrators that they need to decide soon where the new medical school will go.

If they don't, committee members said, USF could miss out on the next round of legislative funding for the project.

The Board of Governors is expected to send a list of priority projects early next year to the Legislature, which would make the appropriations.

USF president Judy Genshaft said last week that the university was still in talks with Vinik. Walsh said the decision hasn't been made yet, but USF expects to have everything ready in time for the Board of Governors' recommendation.

USF already has received $5 million to plan the new medical school building. It intends to ask for $17 million next year and a total of $62 million in state funds over the next three years.

Buckhorn said Tuesday that local players, including top administrators and trustees at USF, have "lined up" behind the idea of putting the medical school not only downtown but on Vinik's property.

"We are focused on that downtown site, as I think everyone else is, too," Buckhorn said.

Details — should USF lease or buy? What other parts of USF Health might come, too? How big would the building be? — are "to be worked out between Jeff and Judy," the mayor said, "but I think that's eminently doable."

Last week, Genshaft floated the idea of bringing not only the medical school downtown but also the planned $50 million USF Heart Health Institute.

For Buckhorn, "bigger is better, taller is better," because it creates a "much more significant presence" and makes the land that much more valuable.

City support for Vinik's project is expected to come from millions of dollars' worth of road realignments, water and sewer relocations and other infrastructure work. Funds for the work would come from downtown redevelopment tax revenues reserved for projects that stimulate further development.

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