Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik plans $1B Investment in Downtown Tampa

Game changer may be a cliche but it seems to fit Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik's vision of a $1 billion investment to create a "live, work, play and stay" neighborhood in downtown Tampa's Channel District that will propel economic growth in Tampa for decades.

"We have a virtual blank canvas of 40 acres ... to develop an entire district to revitalize downtown and change this area for an entire generation," says Vinik.

In the last four years Vinik's real estate team, Strategic Property Partners, quietly amassed vacant lots surrounding the Lightning venue, Amalie Arena. Vinik compares the purchases to the under-the-radar land deals made decades ago for Disney World in Orlando.

For many, his vision for Tampa holds the promise of being a seminal moment in the city's history.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn tags Vinik as a "city builder."

"We are on the precipice of something absolutely amazing. ... This is a day they will look back on and they will say this is where it started," says the mayor.

On Wednesday Vinik and his creative team presented their vision plan for the  district and Channelside Bay Plaza to an overflow crowd at Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina. Among dignitaries were Buckhorn, University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft and Florida Commerce Secretary Gray Swoope.

Over the next five to seven years Vinik proposes to create the Tampa Waterfront District as a vibrant 18/7 retail, dining and entertainment mecca as well as a business center for corporations, entrepreneurs and innovators.

Plans are to add nearly 3 million square feet of commercial and residential development. Upon completion, estimates put annual economic output at about $900 million. About 3,700 direct jobs will be added to Hillsborough County's employment rolls with an average salary of about $78,000. Annual tax revenues will be boosted by as much as $35 million, based on projections by Oxford Economics.

Seattle-based Cascade Investment, founded by billionaire Bill Gates, is the funding partner. "We do have financing to complete the billion dollar project and hopefully go beyond when it is done," Vinik says.

On land donated by Vinik, USF plans to build new facilities for the Morsani College of Medicine and USF Heart Health Institute. Student housing also is a possibility. 

By summer of 2015 the first dirt will turn as work begins on infrastructure and a new street grid that will see Old Water Street expanded and some lesser streets vacated. 

"We hope USF follows shortly behind that," Vinik says.

The struggling Channelside Bay Plaza will see its west end torn away to open up views of the waterfront and Harbour Island. A bridge across Channelside Drive will link the dining and shopping plaza to an existing parking garage. A water taxi, ferry, wharf, a new park and boardwalk will connect residents and visitors to the district's prime asset -- the waterfront.

A new Mexican restaurant, Hablo Taco, will open in the plaza in January.

A mixed-use development on a vacant lot across from the Marriott will have a hotel, residences and a retail row that will connect Tampa Convention Center and Amalie Arena. Improvements to the Marriott, which Vinik recently acquired, also are planned.

The TECO Line Streetcar will be expanded.

Vinik emphasizes that he is working from a vision plan. A master plan is yet to come and he wants input from everyone in the community. A crowdsourcing website, TampaWaterfront20/20, invites comments and suggestions.

In 2015 Vinik says his team will concentrate on marketing Tampa and the Channel District's future.

The Lightning owner says people who've never been to Tampa often don't understand the potential of what the city can become. He recalls some questioned his decision to re-locate to Tampa when he bought the hockey team. "This is a great place to live, a great place to work, a great place to stay," he says. "The quality of life is second to none."

And Tampa is attracting millennials and young professionals, as well as empty nesters, who want to enjoy the urban lifestyle. "The millennials, they don't want to be in suburbs. They don't want cars anymore. They want to rent," Vinik says. "This trend is well documented. It's a reason we feel so confident in what we are doing." 

Channel District resident Sid Hasan moved to Tampa more than a year ago from Washington, D.C. He is a founder of CUPS (Channel District Urban Professionals Society), which is seeking to create a collective voice for Channel District business owners and residences.

Vinik's plan, says Hasan, "validates why I moved her from D.C. I thought this was a perfect place to re-invent myself. This is incredible." 

Read more articles by Kathy Steele.

Kathy Steele is a feature writer and editor at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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