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Liberty Group still wants to buy Channelside property

TAMPA — Santosh Govindaraju and Punit Shah, who won their lawsuit to stop the Tampa Port Authority from buying Channelside Bay Plaza, said Wednesday that's not enough.

Even after everything they've been through, they still want to buy the troubled, nearly-empty downtown retail center.

The principal investors in Liberty Channelside LLC said at a press conference that they think they can do a better job of turning it around than the port.

And though their legal win actually left the Channelside ownership picture more clouded than ever, the two bay area real estate investors said they're not giving up the fight.

"Many of our parents' generation are generally passive, they don't want to fight, they don't want to stir things up," Govindaraju said. "But we weren't raised that way. We were raised in America. We were raised to fight for what we believe in."

Then Liberty's attorney, John Anthony, tried to call the attorney for the Irish Bank Resolution Corp., which owns the Channelside mortgage, to talk about buying the property.

The IBRC's attorney, Van Durrer, wasn't available. Anthony left a message.

The port tried to buy the Channelside mortgage from the IBRC for $5.75 million, but a federal bankruptcy judge on Tuesday ruled that the port's offer was inadequate, and that the Irish bank that owns the foreclosed Channelside property needs to work harder to get a better bid.

Liberty, for example, was willing to pay $7 million for the building and mortgage last year, but the port's governing board voted to deny their bid. Liberty believed the port unfairly undermined their bid, partly by anonymously leaking "cultural and religious" slurs to a political website.

Anthony said those comments, which the judge specifically criticized in his ruling on Tuesday, were especially troubling considering Tampa Bay's Indian-American community is gearing up for the "Bollywood awards" this summer. The bay area will be the first-ever American host of the International Indian Film Academy's 15th annual Weekend & Awards from April 24-26.

"It was not a legitimate business purpose for the port to reject our client based on ethnic considerations," Anthony said. "That is bad faith. And that is very important. It is particularly important because our clients, as Indian-Americans, are preparing for the arrival on the world stage of Bollywood.

"The port cannot afford to be causing public relations difficulties of this kind."

Despite what became a very personal dispute with the Tampa Port Authority — in fact, Liberty's investors are still seeking millions in damages — Govindaraju and Shah said they're still willing to enter into an agreement with the port to buy Channelside.

Last week they even showed the federal judge a guaranteed check for $7 million to close the deal as soon as possible.

But though the judge determined that the pair were, in fact, treated unfairly by the port, there is still no clear path set to resolve the uncertain fate of Channelside.

The land is owned by the port and the building's mortgage is owned by the bank. The port believes it has the power to veto any deal the bank makes to sell Channelside if the port finds the new ownership inadequate to turning the outdoor mall around.

The judge did not resolve that issue on Tuesday. Nor did the judge rule on Liberty's motion to put Channelside up for auction.

But Liberty's attorney, John Anthony, believes the judge's ruling will limit the port's ability to say no to any future Channelside deals.

"We believes their veto has been exposed for what it is," Anthony said. "It mused be a veto that is exercised rationally and not in bad faith."

Liberty Group still wants to buy Channelside property 02/19/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 19, 2014 3:42pm]

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