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Thursday, Jun 21, 2018
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Vinik’s the right guy for Channelside

We have had no shortage of people around here who think big, but the tough part is turning those ideas into reality. If Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik has shown us nothing else after arriving four years ago from Boston, he knows how to make big things happen.

People like dealing with him because he is fair, and they trust him because he does what he says he will do.

“He is an honorable, honest and benevolent guy,” said Tod Leiweke, who serves as chief executive officer for Vinik’s hockey team and is his top ambassador in the community.

So, yeah, I can see why Port Tampa Bay board members endorsed his plan to finally turn Channelside Bay Plaza from something you’d expect to find in Detroit into the kind of attraction the coolest of cool cities have.

It was also a positive step Wednesday when Vinik won a bankruptcy auction in Delaware to gain control of a potential Channelside rebirth. The issue still has to go before a judge this month for a final decision, and even that could be challenged in court by a spurned bidder.

Let’s keep a positive thought, though, and say Vinik ultimately prevails.

It’s truly baffling that Channelside should be in such a prolonged shabby state. This place has needed cardio paddles for a long time. While the recession may explain some of the economic problems that held the area back, I think mismanagement and lack of imagination from the operators tells more of the story.

Channelside has been a mess nearly 15 years in the making, starting with the way the buildings actually block the view of the channel from the street. As businesses struggled and lost the battle to stay open, foot traffic in the area dwindled to something you’d expect to see in Mayberry after 5 p.m.

The blame game between owners, potential bidders, lawyers, politicians and, for all we know, angry manatees was solving nothing and strangling everything. That’s why Vinik’s interest in Channelside was greeted with equal parts of hope and jubilation by so many.

Vinik’s interest is not an act of charity; remember, his hockey team plays in the Forum right in the middle of the Channel District. That’s the same publicly owned building Vinik upgraded two years ago at a cost of about $40 million of his own money. Anything that attracts more business to the district will obviously be good for the Lightning.

“We’re not presumptuous about the process,” Leiweke said. “But we do believe that as the neighborhood goes, so goes the Lightning.

“The reason the arena is located here instead of some suburban location is because it was supposed to be part of something vibrant.”

How’s this for vibrant: Instead of abandoned storefronts and empty sidewalks, the “new” Channelside could become a mecca of music, food, entertainment and pedestrians. It could bring energy to a part of downtown that has been starving for it.

For the game plan, you need look no farther than what Vinik has done in four seasons as owner of the Lightning. It’s hard to recall (or maybe we just don’t want to) how bad that franchise was when he took over.

“It was perfectly set up for threats and innuendos (to move the team),” Leiweke said. “But then a guy came in from out of town and said, ‘Let’s fix this.’ This has, in some ways, been harder than I thought, but Jeff is better than I thought.

“Fixing the Lightning has been challenging and we’re not out of the red yet, but the vital signs used to be terrible and now they’re better. The same principles apply to the neighborhood.”

What you can read into that is that Vinik will do this the right way. Instead of talking about the potential in Channelside, maybe Tampa will finally realize it. To fix a mess like this, you need the right guy.

We have him now.

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