Pam Iorio likes to tell the story of the night the Tampa Bay Lightning won their first Stanley Cup.
It was June 7, 2004, the end of a thrilling seven-game series against the Calgary Flames, played before 22,717 fans at what is now Amalie Arena.
“Everyone spilled out onto the plaza there,” said Iorio, Tampa’s mayor at the time, “and no one really had anywhere to go to celebrate.”
Seventeen years later, the Lightning are chasing their third Stanley Cup, and second in a row. If they win, they’ll celebrate in a city that barely resembles the Tampa of 2004.
Between the Buccaneers’ and Lightning’s first championships in 2003 and 2004 and their stunning title runs of 2020 and 2021, Tampa has become a city transformed. It’s a region-wide thing, really, with downtown St. Petersburg also sprouting up alongside the American League champion Rays and USL Championship conference champion Rowdies.
But the change is particularly evident in downtown Tampa, home to rising towers, luxury hotels, museums and sparkling parks — almost none of which existed way back when.
How much credit sports should get for that is debatable. But it’s not nothing. Jeff Vinik’s purchase of the Lightning in 2010 was the first step toward his $3.5 billion Water Street Tampa development around Amalie Arena. The Bolts’ and Buccaneers’ championship boat parades drew viral, international attention to the city’s Riverwalk, a popular community asset years in the making.
Tampa Bay’s epic 18-month run of sports success has pushed this remade region into the zeitgeist like never before, from this year’s Super Bowl and WrestleMania to the pandemic-displaced Toronto Raptors and Blue Jays — not to mention all those trophies. After years of development following that first Stanley Cup, city leaders couldn’t have planned the timing any better.
“I don’t think it’s an accident that the sports teams are all doing well at the same time the entire Tampa Bay area is exploding in terms of economic growth and opportunity,” Vinik said. “People follow what’s going on in sports, and they know that at least right now, Tampa Bay is kicking ass.”
That message is splashed across Visit Tampa Bay’s latest travel guide, the book that sells the region to the world.
The New Titletown, reads the cover. Cheer for the winning home teams.
“You really have to immortalize the moment that you’re living,” said Visit Tampa Bay president and CEO Santiago Corrada. “You just never know what those lasting images can create.”
A tale of two cities
Here’s a partial list of local attractions that hadn’t opened when the Lighting claimed their first Stanley Cup:
The Tampa Riverwalk; Curtis Hixon Waterfront, Julian B. Lane Riverfront and Water Works parks; a new St. Pete Pier; a new Tampa Museum of Art, Dalí Museum and Tampa Bay History Center; the Glazer Children’s Museum; and the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre. The Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino opened a month before those NHL playoffs. Tampa had maybe five breweries.
Corrada moved here from Miami in 2004. “I thought Tampa was Busch Gardens,” he said. Nothing existed for me outside of Busch Gardens.”
Tampa Theatre president and CEO John Bell used to joke that on nights when there wasn’t a hockey game or event at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, you could fire a cannon down Franklin Street and hit no one.
“It was desolate,” Bell said. “The only upside was that there was plenty of available parking.”
When the national sports media came to town, some couldn’t help but snark.
“The personality of Tampa might be best defined by its quest to find one,” Long Island, N.Y.’s Newsday wrote in 2001, when the city hosted Super Bowl XXXV. “The last 15 years have been Tampa’s most prolific in terms of growth. … (But) with all of Tampa’s added real estate and infrastructure, it can’t seem to shake its reputation as the nation’s strip-club capital.”
Vinik remembers watching that first Lightning championship on TV, having no idea he’d one day buy the team. He’d passed through Tampa before, but only after seriously considering the purchase did he recognize the area’s potential.
“A downtown in a city with really good weather, with pretty much vacant land surrounding an arena, that was a formula for a real estate opportunity,” Vinik said. “I just knew that at some point, it was likely to grow.”
(Vinik is a partner in a group of investors who have loaned $15 million to the Times Publishing Co., owner of the Tampa Bay Times.)
From 2000 to 2017, downtown Tampa’s population grew by 36 percent, according to a 2019 study by the International Downtown Association. People filled residential buildings that didn’t exist in 2004, from the Towers of Channelside to Grand Central at Kennedy to Element and SkyPoint. New buildings in Water Street Tampa will add up to 3,500 more residences, boosting the population even more.
“The area around Tampa Theatre feels like a neighborhood,” Bell said. “We see residents walking dogs. ... It has a completely different feel to it.”
In the early 2000s, Tampa’s older office buildings were dominated by banking, legal and government services, said Brent Miller, managing director of commercial real estate services firm JLL. In recent years, biotech and pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and Axogen have leased space in new developments like Heights Union, a few blocks from the Riverwalk. In June, real estate research and analysis firm Newmark ranked Tampa America’s No. 1 market for office and commercial real estate, based on its high occupancy and low vacancy rates, relative to other markets, during the pandemic.
“It creates more life and creates more energy when you have all different types of industries occupying space, which is what we have now, and we did not have then,” Miller said.
For those who’ve been here awhile, it can feel surreal.
“It’s another city,” said Richard Gonzmart, owner of the Columbia Restaurant Group and a fourth-generation Tampanian.
He means it in a good way.
“It’s become the city that my dad dreamed Tampa and Ybor City would become,” Gonzmart said. “It’s what those that came at the turn of the (20th) century believed it could become: a destination.”
Prior to the 2001 Super Bowl, the 116-year-old Columbia was one of the few Tampa restaurants that reliably drew national attention. During this year’s Super Bowl, Gonzmart said he got more publicity mileage from Ulele, which opened in 2013 near the north end of the Riverwalk.
“Tampa is the hip city,” he said. “We have people wanting to relocate from Orlando.”
As Tampa keeps growing, some of those cool, young transplants won’t be able to afford the downtown lifestyle, putting pressure on the city and developers to invest in affordable housing — especially in a metro area with a 30 percent wage gap between white workers and those of color, according to a new study from financial technology company Self.
Officials consistently point to the need for better public transportation, which would not only spread the growth outward but make downtown more accessible to those who feel priced out.
Even the economics of rooting for the Lightning have changed. In 2004, you could buy a scalped ticket to the decisive Game 7 of that year’s Stanley Cup finals for $500 to $700. This year, tickets for Game 7, if it goes that far, are already more than $2,000.
With growth comes challenges, said former Mayor Bob Buckhorn, but that beats some alternatives. He says Tampa is “a totally different city” from what it was in 2004. He realized that while milling through crowds at yet another big Tampa sports moment, the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship game between Alabama and Clemson.
“If you listened to the conversations, almost to a person, it was, ‘Damn, what the hell happened here?’” Buckhorn said. “People were looking around like they had just been dropped into the middle of Oz.
“That’s when I knew that we had arrived.”
Turning trophies into triumphs
Something else happened in Tampa on the day the Lightning won their first Stanley Cup. That was Rob Higgins’s first day as executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, the group that leads bids to host major sporting events.
“Back then, it was such a blank, empty canvas,” Higgins said of downtown Tampa. “There was a lot of smoke and mirrors in terms of the offerings that we had to be able to provide, in terms of a fan experience for major events.”
Since 2004, Higgins and the Sports Commission have lured and hosted two Super Bowls, a WrestleMania, three NCAA Women’s Final Fours, an NHL All-Star Game and college football’s national title game. The more events that came, the more opportunities the city had to burnish its reputation for staging big games. The Tampa Bay Rays explored relocating from St. Petersburg, thinking a new stadium there might draw more fans. Even when its home teams struggled, Tampa became a place where big-time sports could thrive.
“Sports is a very interesting combination of business and pride and emotion, all balled up into one,” Iorio said. “We’ve done it better than probably any other community. We’re a mid-size market, but when it comes to sports, we are top-tier.”
Tourism officials can’t believe all the free airtime Tampa Bay has gotten these last two years — all those scenic shots of beaches, the Riverwalk and the St. Pete Pier beaming to cities like New York and Boston and Toronto.
“I want to be able to reach out to key markets and say, ‘Hey, come on down and watch your team play our team — and by the way, you get to do all these fun things while you’re here as well,” said Steve Hayes, president and CEO of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater.
It’s helped that Tampa Bay has kept its big events largely safe during the coronavirus pandemic, a time when a lot of other cities weren’t as open for business. Guy Revelle, the owner of Splitsville — one of the few old Channelside businesses still thriving at the new Sparkman Wharf — said this year’s Cup run has brought much more business than last year, when the Lightning were sequestered in Edmonton.
“It’s the rising tide, right?” Revelle said. “Everything’s going to get a little bit better every time we go through these periods.”
Even larger companies might agree, said Vinik, who’s recruiting anchor tenants for Water Street’s developing office buildings.
“We’re getting calls from companies that would not have thought about Tampa 10 years ago — leading, high-tech companies,” he said. “We’ll never know whether the sports teams unconsciously affected their bias to put us on the map. But we’re in. I don’t think it’s a stretch to draw that connection.”
Higgins, whose life changed the day the Lightning won their first Stanley Cup, hopes that as fans bask in this historic sports moment, they consider how far the city has come.
“I would want to say this is a fairy tale, but all fairy tales have some sort of ending,” Higgins said. “This is a fairy tale we want to never end.”