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Hard Hat Event Wows Local Media, Contest Winners

by Peter Pupello / Tampa Bay Lightning
Twitter contest winners get a tour of the new St. Pete Times Forum. - August 9, 2011

With just more than a month until the first preseason game of the 2011-12 season, the Tampa Bay Lightning roster is set for the most part, all but giving fans a preview of what to expect when the puck drops at the St. Pete Times Forum on October 17 against the Florida Panthers.

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CEO Tod Leiweke speaks to the media at the Hard Hat Happy Hour

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The same, however, could not be said about the arena that the team calls home. That was until Tuesday, when approximately 100 local media members and three lucky Twitter contest winners and their respective guests all convened at the St. Pete Times Forum to witness first-hand the building’s $35 million-plus facelift. Amidst the severe thunderstorms outside and the smell of sawdust inside, employees of the Lightning and St. Pete Times Forum hosted a “Hard Hat Happy Hour” to give those in attendance the opportunity to see the progress being made during this summer’s renovation process. The intention was to give media members a better understand of just how different the Times Forum will look come October.

In addition to a “happy hour” with a number of Lightning executives, including CEO Tod Leiweke, COO Steve Griggs as well as architects Ray Chandler and Mike O’Donnell, the event also included a two-hour tour of the ever-changing building and its highly-anticipated renovations, all of which are sure to generate excitement for the upcoming season.

“When (owner and chairman) Jeff Vinik and I walked the building over a year ago, there was a great gap between what the building offered and what our vision was for it to look like,” Leiweke said. “There was a lot of work to do, but we felt that offering our guests the very best in services and experiences was fundamental in building a world class organization.”

Approximately 17 months ago, Leiweke and Vinik strolled the concourses of the 15-year-old arena when it was mutually agreed upon that improvements had to be made to meet the goal of turning the Times Forum into one of the nation’s top venues. That was then. On Tuesday, Leiweke again walked up and down the building corridors, pointing out visions that are no longer remnants of a past dream, but a blossoming reality soon to create one of the best fan experiences possible.

Close to 200 construction workers are splitting two shifts daily to finish the project on time. If overtime is needed to keep things on schedule, it is done. With just a handful of events that fortunately, for the sake of time, include no major concerts over the next eight weeks, about 90 percent of the renovations are scheduled to be completed in time for the season’s home opener. Some parts, primarily the renovation to the “Grand Entry” on the west side of the building, will be finished in time to host the Republican National Convention in August 2012. At its conclusion, the finished product is expected to give the Forum a completely different look, equipped with new sightlines and seats, features designed to enhance the fan experience - such as a grand pipe organ and real bolts of electricity projected from Tesla coils hanging high from the ceiling’s rafters – and décor depicting Florida’s landscape as well as the many traditions rooted deep in Tampa Bay’s rich history.

What appears now to be hidden beneath sawdust and masked by the sweat of summer will soon be a good-as-new venue for not only fans, but employees and media alike to enjoy.

“It’s definitely a big change from last season,” Twitter contest winner Cody Silagyi said. “I’m so excited. I think every night the building is going to be amped up and the atmosphere is just going to be awesome.”

Every suite inside the arena is being reconstructed to add 60 square feet, and some, including those on the 100 level, are being eliminated to improve sightlines and create more space. Plastic seats will be replaced with cushioned “theater” seats, each with a cup holder, and an 11,000-foot outdoor deck and party area is being built on the rooftop of the Forum’s west side.

While there is plenty for fans to get excited about, there are also more intricate renovations that perhaps will go unnoticed, but undoubtedly will be appreciated.

The HVAC system, which had a faltering dehumidifying system that pumped out wet, cold air and caused some metal bolts inside the arena to rust, will be redone, as will the sports lighting system above the ice to add more brightness to the playing surface. One perk of the brand new, brighter lights will be the ability of television stations to utilize super slow-motion technology, which was previously impossible due to the Forum’s dark internal appearance. The Grand Entry will provide an entry point the building has never had.

“It’s just going to be terrific,” Leiweke added. “Every single person who walks into this building is truly going to feel a sense of membership.”

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