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Channelside deal approved; now it's up to Jeff Vinik to make it work

TAMPA

The fight for Channelside Bay Plaza is officially over.

Now begins a new challenge: remaking downtown Tampa's Channel District.

Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik is Channelside's new owner, thanks to the last-second settlement that ended the yearlong court fight over downtown's outdoor mall. The deal was hammered out Sunday night and approved Monday by a bankruptcy judge.

Channelside is the latest addition to the downtown real estate empire Vinik has spent four years assembling around his hockey team. The hedge fund multimillionaire owns the lease to the Tampa Bay Times Forum, 23 neighboring acres and now, finally, Channelside.

Vinik's plans for the area have been the subject of much speculation. However, the specifics have been kept close to the vest by the Lightning owner and his team. Now that Vinik controls Channelside, he may finally be ready to reveal his plans — and implement them.

"The community has waited a long time for these announcements," said Florida Aquarium president Thom Stork, whose building sits next door to Channelside.

Because the settlement does not permit the main players to talk about it, Vinik's spokesman declined to comment. But in 2013, the Lighting owner told the Tampa Bay Times that he had hired the "best minds" to shape his vision for the Channel District.

"We want to be thoughtful and deliberate with this," he told the newspaper then.

In the months since, his lieutenants have signaled that those plans could soon be unveiled. The stumbling block may have been Channelside's uncertain ownership.

Channelside was built on public land in 2001 to help the Channel District shed its past as an industrial waterfront. Instead, the 234,520-square-foot retail and restaurant complex succumbed to the recession, poor management and questionable design.

In 2010 its plight turned surreal: The complex was foreclosed upon by an Irish bank that failed and was taken over by the Irish government. Not only was Channelside technically owned by Ireland, but its fate ended up in the hands of a federal judge in Delaware. Local officials chafed that Channelside's fate was being decided everywhere but in Tampa.

Meanwhile the Tampa Port Authority, which owns the land under the complex, sued its new owner, the Irish Bank Resolution Corp. Later, the two enemies teamed up to take on a new foe for control of Channelside: Santosh Govindaraju and Punit Shah of Liberty Channelside LLC. They fought in the bankruptcy court overseeing the liquidation of the IBRC.

Earlier this year, the judge decided to auction off Channelside. Vinik's new company, CBP Development LLC, won the July 2 auction with a bid of $7.1 million. But Liberty accused the port and IBRC of rigging the auction to favor Vinik. Last week, Liberty seemed to sway the judge.

The judge was set to decide at 12:30 p.m. Monday. So everyone settled on Sunday.

All the parties endorsed Vinik's bid. The Tampa Port Authority paid an additional $1.4 million on top of the $550,000 in fees it has already paid for the complex to help sweeten the deal for the IBRC. Liberty agreed to drop its legal challenge. While it was not revealed what Liberty got in the deal, it was likely financial compensation from Vinik.

Rick Drury, who has kept his Precinct Pizza shop open at Channelside for eight years while most other tenants closed, said he still can't believe the ordeal is over.

"It's almost like getting pulled over by the cops every day," he said. "You keep looking in the rearview mirror, even when you're parked."

Now the spotlight turns to the Lightning owner and his plans.

Stork remembers Channelside's rise and fall, its fortunes impacting the Florida Aquarium next door. He hopes to see Channelside rise again, and soon.

"It was built as a redevelopment tool," he said. "Unfortunately it didn't happen as quickly as everyone wanted it to. And now we've suffered during the past few years with the state of the complex next door. So we're glad to see this now start to move in the right direction."

"This will revitalize this area down here," Stork said. "I'm excited to see what will happen in downtown Tampa."

Before the auction, Vinik's team wowed the port's governing board with its "Channelside Live" vision. The complex would get a facelift and new roster of shops and restaurants. It would become a place for Lightning fans to hang out. And it will need every penny, if not more, of the $10 million Vinik pledged to rehabilitate the complex.

The concept is akin to L.A. Live, the massive Los Angeles development built next to the Staples Center, home of the NBA and NHL. But just as important will be Vinik's plans for his 23 acres in the Channel District. He has already filed plans to build a 400-room hotel next to the Times Forum. He could also extend his L.A. Live concept — sometimes called "Tampa Live" — to the empty lots across from the Times Forum and Channelside.

Vinik owns so much open land downtown that it has long been rumored as the site of a Tampa baseball stadium. But Vinik could make more developing those parcels himself.

He has the means and the land to transform the Channel District.

Soon, Tampa Bay should find out if he has the vision.

"We're dreaming big," he told the Times in 2013. "I want a thriving center of energy down here in this district. We see a huge amount of potential."

Contact Jamal Thalji at thalji@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3404. Follow @jthalji.

Channelside deal approved; now it's up to Jeff Vinik to make it work 07/21/14 [Last modified: Monday, July 21, 2014 10:17pm]
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