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Developer's plans to build Rays stadium over Channelside faces skepticism

TAMPA — Developer Joel Cantor left his mark on St. Petersburg's skyline when he built the sail-shaped Signature Place condominium tower amid a recession.

Now he has radical plans for Channelside Bay Plaza: Cantor told the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday that he wants to buy and raze the struggling entertainment complex so he can build a baseball stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays in downtown Tampa.

Few, though, are buying his latest idea.

Cantor said that a 33,000-seat stadium could fit on the waterfront site, much like AT&T Park in San Francisco where the Giants play.

"Surprisingly, the dimensions fit on the water,'' he said. "It's obviously a big project, and it's a long shot. But we came to the conclusion that it would be the ideal site for a baseball stadium.

"It would be a tremendous catalyst to rejuvenating downtown Tampa.''

There's no lack of obstacles, however. A group led by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik has the inside track to buy Channelside and is close to a deal.

Then there's the Tampa Port Authority's governing board, which would have to approve any deal. The board's reaction — to put it mildly — was skeptical.

Port commissioner Lawrence Shipp laughed for a full minute after a Times reporter told him about it. He said a stadium can't fit on Channelside's footprint.

"I don't think they've invented miniature baseball yet," Shipp said.

"I think you could hit a home run every time," said Port Board Chairman William "Hoe" Brown.

Then there was this reaction: "They're smoking some pretty good stuff," said Tampa City Council Chairman Charlie Miranda, who added that the city has no business talking stadiums while St. Petersburg has a contract with the Rays. "What's the outfield going to be? A cruise ship?"

Cantor is the second major Tampa Bay developer to propose a stadium for the Rays, who are contractually bound to attendance-poor Tropicana Field in downtown St. Petersburg.

Last week St. Petersburg developer Darryl LeClair proposed the "Rays Park at Carillon" project, a 35,000-seat stadium that would be built in mid Pinellas County.

Keeping Channelside a mix of retail and dining would be a mistake, said Cantor. The 233,000-square-foot center recently lost two restaurants and a movie theater.

"It's been an abject failure," Cantor said.

Vinik has proposed remaking Channelside and tying it into the Tampa Bay Times Forum arena and the city's Riverwalk. Cantor said Vinik's proposal, which is close to completion, also calls for a baseball stadium, although he had not seen details of it.

Vinik spokesman Bill Wickett called Cantor's comments "uninformed conjecture'' and said their plan does not involve putting a stadium over Channelside.

"We have a great relationship and respect for the Tampa Bay Rays and their ownership and would not enter into the stadium discussion, as that would not be appropriate,'' Wickett said. "We will continue to work patiently with the bank and the Port Authority as we work toward a viable, vibrant solution for Channelside.''

Rays executive Michael Kalt declined to comment on Cantor's plans. St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster said Cantor has been warned about interfering with the city's contract with the Rays.

To acquire the site, Cantor said he is negotiating with Channelside's former owner, Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp., which defaulted on the mortgage held by the Anglo Irish Bank.

The Vinik group is close to a deal with the bank. But under terms of the 2010 agreement to turn over Channelside to a receivership, Ashkenazy has the right of first refusal to match any purchase proposal, plus pay $375,000. The port board, though, is no fan of Ashkenazy.

"It would be hard to work with those guys," Shipp said.

Attorney Jaime Austrich, who represents Ashkenazy, did not return a call for comment.

In order to fit, Cantor's stadium would be limited to about 33,000 seats — several thousand less than the Trop — and have no upper level. It would also shift Channelside Drive north to the Towers of Channelside, he said. Parking would be off-site.

Though there would be many hurdles, Cantor said, he thinks Channelside's remaining tenants could be removed and demolition started in six months.

But interim port director Charles Klug doesn't see it ever happening. Channelside has leases with tenants and Carnival Cruise Lines that must be honored. The area isn't zoned for a stadium and infrastructure would be plowed over. The proposed stadium would sit on top of Channelside Drive, the Trolley, the Channelside Parking Garage and Cruise Terminal 2. Cruise ships bring in millions for the port.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the best place for a stadium there would be on the north side of Channelside Drive, near vacant parking lots and the ConAgra flour mill. But building over the existing parking garage would be problematic, he said, "because I'm sure there's debt service on the bonds there."

"All of this Joel may have thought of," Buckhorn said. "Joel is very thorough. He really is a quality developer. But I don't know that it would make sense."

Cantor has not discussed his idea with the Rays but hopes it can keep the team in Tampa Bay. A downtown Tampa stadium would be more successful than one in Carillon, he said.

"Downtown stadiums are the trend right now,'' Cantor said. "It's going to come down who's got the money to execute it.''

Staff writer Mark Puente contributed to this report.

Developer's plans to build Rays stadium over Channelside faces skepticism 10/02/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 2, 2012 11:10pm]
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