The Urban Land Institute Trends Conference held in late January at the Armature Works in Tampa was the property development version of a casino's exclusive, high-rollers-only poker game.
When Tom James, Dr. Kiran Patel and Jeff Vinik took their seats for a panel discussion entitled “Big Bets: Private Industry Icons with Regional Vision,” attendees gave the trio their undivided attention. Cameras clicked and rolled. And for good reason — James, Patel and Vinik are instrumental in the region's ongoing transformation.
A Northeasterner, Vinik arrived in Tampa eight years ago when he retired from Fidelity Investments and bought the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“We have everything going for us here as a region,” Vinik says. “And I like to make big bets, but when you make big bets, you'd better be right. Everything tells me we are going to be right.”
It would be an epic understatement to say Vinik has a lot of skin in the game of transforming Tampa. His property development firm, Strategic Property Partners, has partnered with Bill Gates' Cascade Investment LLC to conceive and build the planned $3 billion, 50-plus acre Water Street Tampa development that aims to reinvent the city's Channelside District.
Yet Vinik is candid about Tampa's drawbacks. Chief among those is transportation and mobility for residents who lack access to, or choose not to own, private vehicles. A regional competitiveness report compiled last year by the Tampa Bay Partnership revealed Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater residents are vastly underserved by public transit routes. Measured against 19 comparable U.S. metro areas, the region ranks last in both transit ridership per capita and transit vehicle revenue miles per capita.
Says Vinik: “It's critical that this region improves mobility.”
The arts and culture side of the Tampa Bay area has seen ample investment in recent years, due in no small part to James, chairman emeritus of giant bank and financial services firm Raymond James Financial. One example is James, with tens of millions of dollars of his own fortune, is building the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in downtown St. Petersburg. The museum will have hundreds of pieces from James' vast personal art collection, valued at $50 million.
James says culture is critical to not only attracting high-quality workers nationwide, but also to keep them here and to get them to sell the community to their friends, families and former co-workers. “Culture is an integral part of any community that wants to be successful,” James says, citing St. Petersburg, in particular, as “a great place that attracts a lot of people now,” whereas in the past, “they used to roll up the sidewalks at 6 p.m.”
A cardiologist by training, Patel bought WellCare, an HMO that employs thousands in Tampa, in 1992. He sold it in 2002 for some $200 million. Patel then began a second career as a property developer and philanthropist, in addition to founding HMOs Freedom Health Inc. and Optimum HealthCare Inc.
One of Patel's big bets is on luxury real estate. He believes the area needs more upscale tourist amenities, and he demonstrated his commitment by developing the $175 million, 450-room Wyndham Grand Resort on Clearwater Beach. “I had a vision for a higher-end tourist experience in Clearwater,” he says.
Patel says patience is a virtue that's critical for all these long-term, big bets. After buying the land that eventually became the Wyndham Grand Resort, “I became a victim of the downturn [in the real estate market],” Patel says. “I was the owner of the world's costliest parking lot for a while.”
With all due respect to Kenny Rogers, that's knowing when to hold 'em.