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Port of Tampa set to buy Channelside retail complex for $5.75 million

TAMPA — The Tampa Port Authority finally found the buyer of its dreams to purchase Channelside Bay Plaza: the Tampa Port Authority.

The port's governing board on Tuesday voted unanimously to buy the downtrodden downtown retail center for $5.75 million from the Irish Bank Resolution Corp. and settle its lawsuit with the Irish bank.

If the deal is approved by judges in the next three to eight weeks, port officials said, then the Tampa Port Authority will own Channelside free and clear.

"I have been assured of that by some very expensive lawyers," said Paul Anderson, the port's chief executive officer. "I am confident that this is the right settlement at the right time at the right price to strike this deal.

"I'm just happy to get through all this."

Built to lofty expectations in 2001, Channelside spent the last half of the decade on a real estate losing streak that rivals the worst sports teams in Tampa Bay history.

The 234,520-square-foot complex has been battered by the recession, the real estate bust, foreclosure, the NHL lockout and outright hostility between the stakeholders. While they bickered, the downtown attraction lost businesses, customers and relevance.

Now it sits nearly empty, missing out on the revival of downtown Tampa it was supposed to spur. Visiting cruise ship passengers could mistake Channelside for the world's biggest Hooters, the restaurant chain that is its last major patron.

The last Channelside spat proved to be the worst. The IBRC controls the building because it foreclosed on the property in 2010 after the old owner defaulted on a $27 million loan. But the port has final approval over any sale because it owns the land the center was built on.

It was the bank's job to find a new buyer for the Channelside lease. But the port could veto that deal. The two sides have spent the past 11 months bitterly divided over finding a new buyer.

Unifying ownership of the land and the building, according to port officials, was the best way to resolve the impasse. Now there will be only one decisionmaker: the port board. When the settlement is approved, the Port of Tampa can strike its own deal with a developer of its choosing, negotiate the terms it wants and approve plans that align with its vision.

That's when the real work will begin.

"I think it's a new day for Channelside," said Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who sits on the port board. "I think what this says is that for Channelside, the Tampa Port Authority is in control of its own destiny. We don't have to ask anybody else. We don't have to negotiate with anyone else. We can attract suitors for this property, and they will know coming in that we own the land and we own the building and they only have to negotiate with us."

One of the suitors the port will undoubtedly want to see return to the negotiating table is Tampa Bay Lighting owner Jeff Vinik. His ownership group ended their pursuit of Channelside in October 2012 over a legal complication. The port blamed the bank. Then in May, the bank was angered that the port board voted to kill the IBRC's deal with a new group, Liberty Channelside LLC. Negotiations had stalled and turned bellicose.

The last time the port and bank publicly spoke to each other was June 11: The port offered to work with the bank to find a new buyer — and demanded that the IBRC fix safety violations.

Buying Channelside was an option port officials have considered for weeks. But details of when negotiations began and when the deal was struck cannot be made public until after the settlement is final. The board met in closed session Tuesday to discuss the deal, then voted publicly to approve it.

Port officials said the price — $5.75 million — was pretty good. Channelside's last appraisal was $12 million, and the Liberty bid was believed to be around $8 million. The money will come from the port's $45 million general revenue fund. No taxpayer dollars will be used in the purchase.

A federal bankruptcy judge in Delaware and a Hillsborough circuit court judge must approve the settlement. The federal judge got involved when the IBRC sought bankruptcy protection for its American assets last month.

That complicated the port's lawsuit against the IBRC in circuit court. In 2010 the port sued the bank to evict it from Channelside. The lawsuit was a tactic the board hoped would spur the bank to find an acceptable buyer. But that calculation changed last month when the IBRC sought bankruptcy protection, which likely would have likely delayed the local lawsuit from going to trial in November.

Port board commissioner Patrick Allman credited new chairman Stephen Swindal with getting the deal done. Last month, Allman got the board to appoint Swindal to act on its behalf regarding Channelside.

"He got us from point A to point B," Allman said.

Despite their recent history, Swindal said negotiations with the bank were pretty cordial.

"I felt that dealing with the bank, they were very reasonable," he said. "It was a pleasurable experience."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at (813) 226-3404, thalji@tampabay.com or @jthalji on Twitter.

Port of Tampa set to buy Channelside retail complex for $5.75 million 09/10/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 10, 2013 11:21pm]
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