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Business Observer Friday, Feb. 23, 2018 4 months ago

Street Smarts

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The way to one billionaire's heart, and to get hired for his transformative urban renewal project, is to deftly combine high aptitude with the right attitude.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

To work with Tampa Bay Lightning owner and area business impresario Jeff Vinik, your company must have two key ingredients: talent and a great reputation.

David Conner, a Tampa-based landscape architect, found out firsthand what Vinik is looking for a couple years ago when his firm, David Conner + Associates Inc., sponsored a conference that featured the former Fidelity Investments guru as a guest speaker. Through Water Street Tampa, a massive project that includes the construction of 18 new buildings on more than 50 acres, Vinik's Strategic Property Partners is poised to transform downtown Tampa's Channelside area.

“Somebody from the audience asked him if SPP would use local firms [for the Water Street Tampa project],” Conner recalls. “And he was very pointed about saying that they would love to use local firms, but they didn't feel that the talent was here in Tampa. And I can appreciate that, because I think that's a big issue we have here. We don't have the depth of experience and talent that you see in other parts of the country.”

Conner, 57, says his firm didn't have any connection with SPP at the time — but that would change.

The real estate downturn of the late 2000s made it too difficult to find work in the commercial property development sector. So Conner focused on public projects.

Thanks to a contract with the University of Florida in 2006, “by the time the economy went into the tank, we were doing every project on the University of Florida campus, every major building,” he says. That included landscape design for six buildings simultaneously.

The crown jewel was UF's Plaza of the Americas. It received a $2.2 million makeover, designed by Conner, which began in 2016 and recently was completed.

Conner parlayed his success — and developing talent reservoir — in Gainesville into a deal to reimagine Hyde Park Village in south Tampa. Working with Smith Dalia Architecture and WS Development, Conner's firm gave the area a tree-lined, pedestrian-friendly makeover that draws locals and visitors to the many boutique shops and restaurants. It also encourages shoppers and diners to stop and linger awhile longer than expected thanks to features like the Village Circle, a European-style plaza, replete with fountain, which can be used as an event space.

The work in Gainesville and beyond, Conner says, boosted revenues at the firm, which employs five other landscape architects as well as support staff, between 15% and 20% annually over the past three years. When the book is closed on 2017, Conner expects it to be his firm's best year ever in total revenue.

Vinik and SPP, meanwhile, “observed the development of Hyde Park Village,” Conner says. The work his firm did there seemed to jibe with the Lightning owner's vision for downtown Tampa, and his call to use top-notch, talented vendors.

Vinik, Conner says, believes “that if you spend money on these sorts of spaces, if you improve the overall pedestrian environment, if you make it safer, if you provide more shade and more opportunities for people to engage in conversation ... if you take that seriously, you'll be rewarded by people spending more time talking about your place and coming to see what it's all about.”

Through some intermediaries, SPP last year came calling on David Conner + Associates with a prime offer: the chance to help redevelop the building formerly known as District 3, which will be part of Water Street Tampa and SPP's headquarters. “We enjoy the opportunity to work with [SPP] and consider it a challenge,” he says. “They certainly have very high standards, and we'll work hard to try to meet and exceed those standards.”

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