No dirt was moved, but here's what happens when you unveil a billion-dollar vision. Jeff Vinik is feeling good. He’s just back from two days of meetings in New York, where he says “people know” about the $2 billion real estate development he and Cascade Investment LLC are backing in downtown Tampa." “We’re on the radar,” said Vinik, who owns the Tampa Bay Lightning. It’s been one year since Strategic Property Partners, the holding company Vinik and Cascade formed for the endeavor, unveiled its plans for a 3 million-square-foot, mixed-use district. In short, it’s been a groundbreaking year, even if no dirt was turned. In that time, development costs have grown from $1 billion to $2 billion under a master planning process spearheaded by two household names in urban planning — Jeff Speck, author of “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time” and David Dixon of Stantec’s Urban Places Group. Since the announcement, SPP has partnered with New York-based Delos to certify the wellness of its buildings and the entire neighborhood — a $20 million commitment. Most surprisingly, the chief executive for both the Lightning and SPP, Tod Leiweke, resigned to become chief operating officer of the NFL. Sitting in his office in Amalie Arena — 6:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, one day shy of the Dec. 17 anniversary — Vinik says the growth behind the scenes is just as important as the headlines. “We’re a lot smarter today than we were a year ago, and that is from hundreds of meetings and thousands of pages the team has read, and from interacting so closely with our master planners,” he said. “We have a much better vision of where we’re going.”

‘We must be brilliant’

After making dozens of public appearances in 2015, Vinik tends to stick to a script when it comes to SPP’s plans. It goes something like this: The group is making “good progress” on landing a major office tenant; the development is intended to lift the entire Tampa Bay region. His pitch to outsiders heralds the quality of life in Tampa and the friendly, welcoming nature of the business community. Keep him talking and a bigger picture emerges — one of a real estate company that’s gained confidence and vast knowledge in the past year. A year’s worth of planning and meetings is moving SPP toward breaking ground on a district with a sense of place, Vinik says — a neighborhood that is somehow uniquely Tampa, without recreating any of the city’s existing neighborhoods. The master plan lays out every last detail, down to the placement of water fountains and public art. The district will include rooftop gathering spaces, dog parks and events in Cotanchobee Fort Brooke Park. There’s a heavy focus on creating engaging experiences and storefronts, making the neighborhood a place where people want to be — whether they’re residents, local employees or Lightning fans coming to a game. “That’s what’s going to make or break this neighborhood in terms of its success,” Vinik said on the overall walkability of the district. “We must be brilliant at that.” While those processes aren’t as visible as the still-unseen groundbreaking ceremony or construction, the Tampa real estate community is generally aware of the work going on behind the scenes, said Chase Pattillo, managing director of CBRE Group Inc. “It really is a situation where you see how complicated these kinds of multi-use, multi-generational developments really are,” Pattillo said. “There’s so much that goes into it.”

Looking for ‘early adopters’

What Vinik has to sell at this point is largely a vision — renderings and promises of what’s to be built on the gravel lots surrounding Amalie Arena. But given the financial capability of Vinik and Cascade — the investment fund controlled by Microsoft founder Bill Gates — the group is in a better position than most developers, who are at the mercy of traditional debt and equity sources. “Usually in projects like this, before building has started, there’s skepticism,” Vinik said. “There’s, ‘Well I want to wait and see what this other company does.’ In this case, because of the commitment of myself and Cascade Investment, the people we talk to know this project is for real.” Pattillo believes the development is already significant for Tampa. While he can’t link SPP’s development plans to any deals CBRE has handled, it’s a selling point. “Any time you can throw out names like Vinik and Gates and Cascade, it puts a validation stamp on what otherwise would have been a second-tier market,” Pattillo said. Vinik won’t say whether SPP will offer free or discounted rent to lure a major corporation to the district. If it did, he’ll argue, it’s because an office tenant could be worth those kinds of concessions, because it will bring consumers to fill up residential buildings and frequent the stores. And making less money while getting the type of tenant he’s seeking would be worth it if it helps the bigger picture. “We’re not going to make shoot-the-lights-out hedge fund type returns, but we’re not in this to lose money on any individual element of this,” he said. “There’s some properties that you’d be willing to have lower returns on than others because it’s all about how this comes together.” On the other hand, it’s an “incredible opportunity” for a company to put a flagship location in a premier location — the kind of deal that has the potential to command record-high office rents for Tampa. “There are early adopters in anything — it was Apple products 20 years ago, and it’s the same thing with us,” he said. “We have conversations with people who get the vision, get the WELL certification, understand what we’re building, and have confidence we’re building it.”

A ‘very hard decision’

Vinik’s biggest surprise of the year came over the summer: Leiweke was considering leaving for an executive position with the NFL. The Lightning announced his resignation on July 24. “He told me what was going on, and I helped him make the decision,” Vinik said. “It was a very hard decision. He loved it down here.” While Leiweke’s resignation was completely unexpected, Vinik said it didn’t delay the group much, save for a week or two of transition time. And while Vinik has since become more hands-on with SPP, he plans to spend more time traveling and pitching the development to potential office tenants in 2016, once SPP hires a new CEO. Though widely regarded as a star in the sports and entertainment business, Leiweke didn’t have the real estate experience necessary to lead SPP into its next phase — execution, Vinik said. “Honestly, I wish we had hired a CEO a year ago,” he said. “We needed that person, with or without Tod.” To outsiders, Leiweke’s departure seemed to leave a void, said Mark House, managing director at The Beck Group in Tampa. “Tod — his energy level, I don’t know if anyone has that kind of energy level that I’ve ever met,” House said. “He was the cheerleader kind of guy, and then it was, ‘Who’s going to step in there to fill that role?’ It seemed like, ‘We know what we’re going to do, we just don’t have a ringleader right now.’”

2016 and beyond

The recurring theme to every topic within SPP’s plans that you broach with Vinik is this: This development is a long-term project for both him and Cascade. “We want to bet big on Tampa and Tampa Bay, and the way you bet big on a project like this is you do a lot, you do it quickly and you hold it,” he said, “because over a long period of time is when value recreation comes as rents go up, condo prices go up. We both have very long-term horizons on this.” Even with 2015’s progress, the next year could be bigger, as SPP hires a CEO and Vinik continues to sell Tampa across the nation. “The most important [thing] isn’t what happens in December 2015. It’s what we will have in 2018, 2019, 2020, and we have so much more confidence in that end product than we did a year ago,” he said. “It’ll be the same thing as we go forward.”