10 people to watch in 2008

By the Times staff
Published January 6, 2008

They include a Hall of Fame former Buccaneer, a thirty-something financial playmaker and a septuagenarian attorney. Some are well-known politicians and entrepreneurs; others behind-the-scenes players.

They include key planners behind some of the biggest projects planned in the region: a multibillion-dollar nuclear power plant, a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays and a fast-expanding Seminole Hard Rock casino. And what they do next promises to impact such hot-button issues as homeowners insurance, health care, and how safely the government invests our money amid a subprime mortgage meltdown.

Together, they make up 10 people to keep an eye on in the new year:

Lee Roy Selmon, 53, co-founder, Lee Roy Selmon's restaurant chain

Why we're watching: Concepts cut loose by OSI Restaurant Partners usually exit the back door and head straight for the morgue: Think Paul Lee's Chinese Kitchen, or Zazarac, the Tampa company's short-lived Cajun test. So when an investment group led by OSI director and former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Lee Roy Selmon took his six-store, self-named chain solo in October, it broke new ground. Selmon and president Peter Barli aren't just pursuing a more aggressive growth plan for the upscale-Southern-food concept than OSI did (the pair hopes to have 30 locations open by 2012). They're challenging OSI orthodoxy, which said that Selmon's probably would never be more than a local play. OSI may still be proved right. But by retaining a 20 percent stake in the enterprise, the company is wisely hedging its bets. Scott Barancik, Times staff writer 

Danny Wool, 44, Veropedia founder, and Terry Foote, 41, Veropedia investor

Why we're watching: If Jimmy Wales is the public face of the Wikipedia Show, then Danny Wool and Terry Foote are two of his former stagehands. They were with Wikipedia -- Wool as the grants coordinator, Foote as a volunteer -- before it became a household phrase, when it was operating from a tiny office suite in downtown St. Petersburg. Now, Wales is packing up Wikipedia for Silicon Valley, and Wool and Foote, who are staying behind, hope to emulate his rise to tech stardom with a similar Web site, Veropedia. Veropedia, they say, is like Wikipedia, except reliable. Volunteers lift articles from Wikipedia, edit them for accuracy and grammar, then add them to the Veropedia Web site, which -- unlike Wikipedia -- can't be changed by the average Joe. They insist they're not competing with Wikipedia. Good thing: Wikipedia has 9-million entries and 75,000 contributors; Veropedia has fewer than 5,000 entries, and 140 volunteers. Wool and Foote are aiming Veropedia at teachers and students who, apparently, don't want to trek to the library. Wool resigned from the Wikimedia Foundation, the nonprofit that runs Wikipedia, in March because he disagreed with some directors about how they were running the organization. He launched Veropedia in April. Veropedia "is really running on a shoestring," said Wool, who hopes to fund it with advertising but is currently running it with personal savings and loans from friends. Christina Rexrode, Times staff writer 

Dexter Douglass, 78, prominent Democrat and Tallahassee lawyer, former Gov. Lawton Chiles' general counsel when the state sued the tobacco industry in 1997 and walked away with $11.3-billion.

Why we're watching: He's the heaviest hitter among the three trial lawyers Gov. Charlie Crist persuaded to go after the property insurance industry through a possible class-action lawsuit alleging antitrust violations and collusion. Crist wants to see if several large insurers, including Allstate, Nationwide and USAA, conspired with hurricane-risk modeling companies, reinsurers and rating agencies to get around a new state law that directs insurers to lower their home-owners premiums. If Douglass, Roberto Martinez and Robert Hackleman can prove the allegations, the insurance companies could be forced to send refund checks to thousands of policyholders. But the companies could also decide to pull out of the market even faster than they already are. The findings are due in late January. Tom Zucco, Times staff writer

Michael Kalt, 33, vice president of development, Tampa Bay Rays

Why we're watching: Kalt is the wunderkind point man trying to build political consensus for a plan that's the financial foundation of the Rays' efforts to get a new baseball stadium built. After helping parlay other people's needs and money into new homes for the Yankees and Mets in New York, Kalt cobbled a plan that would raise most of the cash to build a new $450-million stadium in downtown St. Petersburg by selling publicly owned Tropicana Field as site for a $600-million-plus mixed-use project. Skeptics extend well beyond critics with a distaste for taxpayer giveaways. Kalt must overcome opposition to tearing down a stadium only 17 years old, cramming a new one into a precious waterfront spot with little parking and getting fans to forsake air conditioning in the dead of summer. Mark Albright, Times staff writer 

Alex Sink, 59, Florida Chief Financial Officer

Why we're watching: She's on the firing line in the crisis at the State Board of Administration. Bad investments tied to the mortgage market meltdown led to a run on the SBA's Local Government Investment Pool. The cities, counties and school boards that invest in the fund are in an uproar over being denied full access to their money. Now fellow SBA trustees Charlie Crist and Bill McCollum are counting on Sink, who has a banking background, to set the SBA on the right path. Top priorities are completing an investigation into what went wrong, finding a new executive director to replace Coleman Stipanovich, hiring an outside money manager for the pool and winning back the confidence of disgruntled investors. Helen Huntley, Times staff writer

John Fontana, 48, president of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa

Why we're watching: Fontana runs the Seminole Tribe of Florida's biggest casino at a time when the tribe's $1-billion-plus gambling business is poised to explode. If an agreement with the state survives legal challenges, Seminole casinos will have Florida's only legal blackjack games and replace bingo-based machines with Las Vegas-style slots. A $120-million expansion added casino floor space, a second parking garage, a high-end steak house and a VIP lounge. The Tampa Hard Rock plans to extend its marketing reach to Daytona Beach and offer more live entertainment. Fontana hopes tribal leaders will approve construction of 750 new guest rooms, three times the capacity of the current hotel. The new games would "certainly affect the business level, certainly affect what it takes for us to operate," he says. Steve Huettel, Times staff writer

Larry Richey, 51, new Head of the Greater Tampa chamber Of Commerce Committee of 100

Why we're watching: Richey will oversee the Tampa region's leading economic recruitment organization at a time of slower growth and creeping unemployment. He's well equipped. In his day job he's Central Florida managing director of real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield. His staff specializes in luring corporate tenants to the region's office buildings and shopping centers. Unlike some predecessors in the Chamber of Commerce job, who took a cruel-to-be-kind approach to listing the region's shortcomings, Richey is more apt to tout the triumphs of living around Tampa Bay. One example is the recent formation of M2Gen, a cancer research joint venture between drug giant Merck and the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center. As Richey said at a meeting of economic development officialdom last year: "The Tampa Bay region has been pretty much the envy of the country." James Thorner, Times staff writer

Danny Roderick, 47, vice president of nuclear projects and construction for Progress Energy Florida

Why we're watching: Roderick keeps busy laying the groundwork for Progress Energy's new multibillion-dollar nuclear plant in Levy County. If the St. Petersburg utility decides to go forward with the plans, it will be among the largest capital investments ever made by the company, and it will be among the first new nuclear plants built in more than three decades. Roderick has been with Progress Energy for 11 years and has served in several nuclear plant management positions at the Crystal River Energy Complex. Asjylyn Loder, Times staff writer

Jay G. Trezevant, 48, assistant U.S. attorney, U.S. District Court, Tampa

Why we're watching: The prosecutor leading the investigation into WellCare Health Plans Inc., Trezevant has plenty of experience dealing both with whistle-blowers and health care providers. A decade ago, he was part of the team that pursued the hospital chain HCA for overbilling, resulting in more than $2-billion in fines. In 2001, he led a complaint against Tampa nursing home operator Vencor. Trezevant, who has an undergraduate and master's degree in accounting in addition to his law degree, is known for determination and thoroughness. WellCare watchers can expect him to take his time poring over the thousands of documents seized during a late-October raid on the managed care company's headquarters. Trezevant spent 18 months studying the Vencor data before taking on that case, but it ultimately resulted in the nursing home operator paying a $104.5-million settlement. Kris Hundley, Times staff writer