Sunday, January 21, 2018
Business

Tampa Port Authority to seek its own buyer for Channelside

TAMPA — For 10 months, the question of who should buy Channelside Bay Plaza has separated the Tampa Port Authority and the Irish Bank Resolution Corp. like a chasm. The downtown retail center can't be sold unless both sides agree on a buyer.

Port commissioner Patrick Allman pitched an idea Tuesday to bridge that considerable gap: Instead of waiting for the bank to find another ownership group, why can't the Tampa Port Authority go out and find its own buyer?

The port's governing board approved Allman's motion to give chairman Stephen Swindal the power to do just that. On all Channelside matters, Swindal now has the authority to speak and negotiate on behalf of the board, whether with prospective buyers or the Irish bank itself.

"If he's able to negotiate with anybody and bring back a deal to the board," said Allman, "then hopefully that will send a message to the Anglo Irish bank: 'If you're willing to talk, we have someone you can talk to.' "

The board spent much of Tuesday's meeting discussing the zombie-like downtown waterfront retail center, and even voted to explore the idea of making available free parking at Channelside to help its few remaining tenants.

"They are dying on the vine," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman, who sits on the port board, "and we need to do something."

Free parking is a short-term answer. Finding a new owner is the long-term solution. Ideally the port wants an ownership group with the vision and financial means to buy and revive Channelside. Under Allman's reasoning, once the port has found its ideal buyer, it would connect that buyer with Channelside's owner, the IBRC, to finalize the deal.

There's nothing to stop the Tampa Port Authority from shopping Channelside around — but the port has no authority to actually sell it. The bank owns Channelside, and only the bank can sign a deal to sell it. The port owns the land, however, so only the port can approve any sale.

The two sides jointly control Channelside's fate — yet neither can agree on anything.

In October, the bank allowed legal complications to scuttle Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik's attempt to take control of Channelside. In May, the port board voted to kill the bank's deal with a new group, Liberty Channelside LLC, after negotiations stalled and turned testy.

The last communication between the two sides was June 11, when the port offered to work with the Irish bank to find a buyer — and warned the bank to fix safety violations at Channelside. The port hasn't heard from the bank since. They have no idea if the bank is negotiating with yet another buyer or, in fact, if the bank is doing anything about Channelside. Bank officials customarily do not comment.

Another complication: The port is suing the bank in Hillsborough County circuit court to evict the bank from Channelside for allowing the property to fall into disrepair. The case goes to trial in November.

"I think having one voice is important," said general counsel Charles Klug. "Leading up to the litigation, it would be good to authorize the chairman to speak with one voice for the board."

What chance does the port have of breaking the impasse by finding its own buyer?

Said Tampa Port Authority Senior Director of Real Estate James Renner: "You can say this about any negotiation: maybe."

Murman wanted the Tampa Port Authority to do something right now to relieve Channelside's few remaining tenants. She said allowing some kind of free parking would help. Channelside's parking garage has been criticized as hard to use with a difficult payment system.

The board didn't want to wait for the next meeting to consider solutions. It voted to let port staff come up with a free parking plan, likely involving the surface parking lot next door.

"It's very unwieldy," Murman said of the current parking system. "You have to go in there and get your ticket and walk across the street and hopefully not get killed and walk all the way around to get into the retail center. Retail works when parking is convenient."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at (813) 226-3404, [email protected] or @jthalji on Twitter.

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