Friday, February 23, 2018
Business

Carlton: Can Vinik turn a sad Channelside around?

Somehow, the Hooters on the corner soldiers on, dishing up lunchtime wings to tourists in T-shirts and guys in ties. But otherwise, the sprawling Channelside entertainment complex along a slice of waterfront at the edge of downtown Tampa looks to be on life support.

A marquee still welcomes visitors who were here for the Outback Bowl six months ago. "Look, there's movies," says a little girl walking by with her mother, pointing to a theater sign. No. There were movies.

"We've had days when not one customer walked through the door," the owner of the wine store said when they closed last year.

Blame the economy. Blame the before-its-time location. Blame fun spots in nearby Ybor City. Remember that old Saturday Night Live skit about the mall Scotch tape store where no one ever shopped? This is sadder.

Can Channelside be saved? And is Jeff Vinik, owner of our Tampa Bay Lightning and man who has for years had a plan, the one to save it along with his partners?

Today is the federal bankruptcy auction of Channelside. The three bidders in the mix: Liberty Channelside LLC, which was rejected by port officials before; the port itself, which would want a developer to spend to fix it; and Vinik's group.

He came to town and turned out to be civic-minded and philanthropic. He says he likes it here. Asked by the Tampa Bay Times last year how long he planned to own the Lightning, he replied, "Till the day I die." Good answer for a city that does not care for carpetbaggers.

So about that plan.

This week Vinik's group revealed the high-energy Channelside Live, akin to Los Angeles' L.A. Live by the Staples Center. An open-air complex of bars, restaurants and retail could dovetail with 23 empty acres in the area Vinik already owns.

It's walkable for drinks or dinner from the Tampa Bay Times Forum where the Lightning play (and where we have big-name concerts like Katy Perry's sold-out show this week). It's not far from hotels and the convention center. It's next to the Florida Aquarium and cruise ship terminals.

Vinik's group has the opening high bid — $7.1 million — though the project is supposed to go to the "best bid." His plan already won over port officials so taken with what they saw that they preapproved negotiating a lease with him. To Tampa Mayor Bob "the Builder" Buckhorn, Vinik "makes all the sense in the world."

"He puts his money where his mouth is," the mayor says.

So why might this work now?

Downtown has grown up since Channelside opened 13 years ago. (Rumor has it downtown will get a grocery store soon, which would be a major coup.) A Channel District neighborhood, a real community of residents, exists where it did not before. A reimagined entertainment complex could serve locals, tourists, conventioneers and fans from the forum.

Watching downtown evolve — from the north end of the Riverwalk through the tall buildings along the waterfront southeast to Channelside — is like one of those abstract pictures you stare at for a long time and suddenly see the clear image within. This one shows a downtown more connected and thriving, and something sad that could turn into a whole new place to go.

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