It's 9 p.m. on a Wednesday, and bartender Jason Lewis is alone at the bar reading a copy of I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell.
Six hours into his shift, he's rung about $50 in sales and isn't expecting much more. He can't remember a slower night in the two years he has worked at Tinatapas in Channelside, but laments there have been many. Business is good on the weekends but slow the rest of the week, especially during the day, when many of the restaurants are closed.
"We get a lot of tourists who are in their hotels looking for something to do,'' Lewis said. "They come down here during the day and say, 'This is it?'''
Seven years after opening in Tampa's seaport on the edge of downtown, Channelside has struggled to gain the foothold as envisioned. Challenges that once loomed, from finding a vibrant tenant mix to developing a downtown customer base, remain. Throw in the 9/11 attacks that took place a few months after the opening and the recent real-estate bust, and it's a wonder the place has survived — and, in a handful of instances, thrived.
"There's nothing down there to draw you,'' said Denise Becknell, a Channel District resident who wants to move but can't find a buyer for her loft. "It's over-rated.''
A slow start
The $49 million entertainment complex opened in early 2001 with few tenants and strong competition from Centro Ybor and St. Petersburg's BayWalk, which opened about the same time. Channelside's original owner had taken over the 10-screen movie complex, the main anchor, in anticipation of Regal Cinemas declaring bankruptcy. A few restaurants pulled out at the last minute, leaving Pop City, a club and adult arcade, as the only major draw.
Within months, despite the addition of Stump's Supper Club, Howl at the Moon and a few other businesses, the situation wasn't much better. A representative for Channelside's owner at the time, Orix Real Estate Equities of Chicago, admitted: "It should not have been built at the time it was built because there is a complete lack of demand for this retail rental space.''
The 230,000-square-foot center persisted and, by mid 2003, was about three-quarters occupied. The next year, Hooters arrived, giving locals a taste of familiarity.
Since then, several businesses have come and gone. The Signature Room Grille, an outpost of the famed restaurant atop Chicago's John Hancock building, opened in 2006 but closed the next year. Grille 29, which had a decent following among locals, shuttered last fall.
In March, the company that owns some of the bars on the second level, including Margarita Mama's and Banana Joe's, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. A few weeks ago, Hook Rum Club, a large bar on the second level, closed.
Drawing locals, the bread-and-butter of retail centers, has been difficult. Investors, not homeowners, bought many nearby condominiums, leaving a significant percentage vacant. The Towers of Channelside, the closest to Channelside, filed for bankruptcy.
Even those living in the Channel District don't frequent the businesses as often as expected. They might walk over for dinner or a movie every now and then but haven't made a habit of it.
"I really don't go over there,'' said Jill Lifsey, 36, who lives in the Victory Lofts and owns District Designs, a modern design center next door. "It's so young. It's all clubs.''
She and her husband, Stan, prefer downtown places, such as Zelda's Cafe & Deli on Kennedy Boulevard or Fly on Franklin Street, over Channelside's themed eateries.
"Personally, I don't think it's high quality,'' she said. "It's kind of cheesy.''
Luisa Meshekoff, owner of a longtime dance studio in the Channel District, said she's never liked the look or feel of Channelside. Rather than blend with the waterfront setting, like the Florida Aquarium, the complex blocks it.
"It's pretty plastic,'' she said. "My preferences are for smaller enclaves with something that's interesting. Something that's more the essence of the neighborhood.''
Pockets of positives
Amid the disappointments are signs of encouragement. After several years of tenant searching, Channelside is nearly full, thanks to the recent additions of Wet Willie's and Oishi Japanese restaurant. It's a prime destination for conventioneers and tourists, and becomes party central whenever a major event comes to town, such as next year's Super Bowl.
Despite poor economic times, some businesses are seeing modest growth. Sales at the Wine Design, one of the center's few longtime retail shops, has increased in the past five years, especially among regulars who like the new wine-tasting vending machines. Locals now account for half the business, up from 25 percent a few years ago.
"We're extremely pleased that our numbers keep going up,'' co-owner Heidi Nietzel said. "We've always been saying, 'It's going to take longer than expected.'''
At Stumps, after a few years of flat sales, receipts are up, due to the new Rock Star Fridays in which customers sing Karaoke to a live band. At Splitsville — an upscale bowling-alley concept that's expanding nationwide — corporate events, private parties and nighttime traffic have built business every year. (Cruise passengers don't spend much unless their ship is delayed.)
Even Bennigan's, which closed most of its locations, stayed open in Channelside and enjoys a jump in business during hockey games, concerts and popular movie openings.
"We've been doing great,'' said David Beringer, one of the managers. "We're real busy on the weekends and during the week we're up compared to last year.''
A driving force
Soldiering through the ups and down: Guy Revelle and his partner, Mark Gibson. The longtime tenants started with Stump's and Howl at the Moon, then added Splitsville and Tinatapas.
Going in, they knew it would take time to revitalize downtown Tampa and develop the Channel District. They also knew they had some absolutes in their favor. Within walking distance were major attractions — the Florida Aquarium, St. Pete Times Forum, Tampa Convention Center and streetcar to Ybor City.
Revelle immersed himself in everything downtown and Channelside. He joined boards and committees for the Tampa Downtown Partnership and Tampa Bay & Company, and started meeting with public officials. He also pleaded — to no avail — with Outback officials to bring in a restaurant.
"This is going to be a slow build, and we were ready for that,'' Revelle said in a recent interview. "I've never been the type of person to sit around and cry.''
Revelle successfully fought to add weekend evening hours to the yellow In-Town Trolley that circulates through downtown. He pushed to attract national sporting events, such as the 2008 Women's Final Four, and he wants to create a frequent customer card for locals.
Business owners admit some problems — such as parking — are unlikely to go away. The Tampa Port Authority garage across the street fills up quickly on weekends. The west-side parking lot is free at lunchtime but costs $5 any time after 1:30 p.m., deterring many people who can park for free at competing venues, such as International Plaza.
Once inside, access to the waterfront is limited due to port security. Only a few places offer waterfront views.
Even the name creates confusion. First it was the Channelside at Garrison Seaport, then the Shoppes at Channelside. Channelside stuck, but became the catchall name for the Channel District neighborhood.
So the complex added Bay Plaza to the name in 2006. Banners and signs advertise as such, although it's still known locally as Channelside. Its Web site, ChannelsideBayPlaza.com, is often confused for Channelside.com, which is unrelated.
Efforts to build a local following have met with mixed results. Hooters offered a free lunchtime trolley from the downtown business district but ended it late last year because the cost didn't justify it.
This summer, plans to revive Friday night fireworks fizzled when businesses couldn't raise the money.
Customers from neighboring hotels and attractions continue to help keep the center afloat. The convention center mentions Channelside prominently when soliciting large groups. And the Florida Aquarium has discussed launching a summer "date night" with extended hours on Thursdays, so patrons can walk directly from there to dinner at Channelside.
Most weekday nights, it's not unusual for out-of-towners and conventioneers to make up most of the clientele. Business people walk over from their hotels only to find the complex half-closed.
"I had a great meal at the Thai place, but it was empty,'' said Al Masucci, a medical sales manager from New Jersey. Channelside is "a beautiful place, but I thought it would be a lot busier.''
— Will Channelside ever become a top destination? Tell us what you think at [email protected]