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Lightning owner Jeff Vinik's group gaining ground on Channelside deal

TAMPA — The interim director of the Tampa Port Authority said Tuesday that negotiations for Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik's group to take over Channelside Bay Plaza are going stronger than ever — and they may be about to clear a potential hurdle.

Charles Klug said the port staff has been holding more meetings recently with Vinik's group, Metis Channelside LLC, to finalize their plans to remake the struggling entertainment complex, which is nearly bereft of the restaurants and retail shops it was built to host.

"I just know the people we're dealing with are more energized, and we're meeting more often with them," Klug said. "So it seems the bank is close to working out a deal."

Klug said that the Anglo Irish Bank, which foreclosed on it in 2010, is also working to eliminate the one party that could delay Vinik's takeover: the Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp.

The former owner defaulted on a $27 million loan in 2010. The complex was then foreclosed on by the Anglo Irish Bank, which was taken over by the Irish government. Essentially, Ireland owns Channelside.

Vinik's group has spent months negotiating with the government-controlled bank to sign a new lease for Channelside. Once the bank deal is done, Metis must submit its proposal and lease terms to the Tampa Port Authority board for approval. The authority owns the land under Channelside so the board has the final say.

But Ashkenazy has the ability to hamper the deal because of a clause in a 2010 court agreement that allows the former owner to exercise a right to match any offer for Channelside. The New York real estate firm would have 10 days to exercise that right, paying the same price plus an additional $375,000.

But Klug said that he was told by the Metis people that the bank is negotiating some kind of agreement whereby Ashkenazy would not exercise that right to match the offer. It was not known if that agreement would include financial compensation.

"I think they've almost worked it out," Klug said. "The bank is doing that separately."

By exercising that right, Ashkenazy could interfere with or delay the deal, but its chances of retaking Channelside are slim. The port's governing board has soured on the company and likely wouldn't approve any plans involving the former owner.

But the board members have seen the Vinik group's ideas for remaking the 234,520-square-foot complex, and the reviews have been favorable.

The template board members point to is L.A. Live, a sprawling mixture of condos and hotels, restaurants and shops, next to the Staples Center, where the Los Angeles Lakers and Kings play. Vinik owns the Lightning and the lease to the Tampa Bay Times Forum. He also has a link to the L.A. project: L.A. Live executive Tim Leiweke is the brother of Lightning CEO Tod Leiweke.

In the past two years, partnerships linked to Vinik have acquired 12 acres across the street from the Times Forum. That could provide more room for an L.A. Live-style development in the Channel District, but has also fueled speculation that it could one day be the site of a downtown Tampa baseball stadium — an idea Vinik's people have repeatedly denied.

Vinik was at a charity event in Clearwater on Tuesday handing out his first $50,000 donation as part of Lightning Foundation and Lightning Community Heroes program. He said their vision for all that property in the Channel District is still coming into focus.

"We're basically brainstorming right now," he said. "We're trying to think of all kinds of possibilities. The most important thing is how much we want a vibrant area down there."

But their designs for Channelside are closer to fruition. One of the most prominent features is a pedestrian bridge linking the complex and the parking garage to reduce foot traffic on Channelside Drive. Port staffers met with Metis officials Tuesday to discuss it.

"There are issues about how does it serve the garage versus how does it serve the development?" said James Renner, the port's senior director of real estate. "What does it cost here and what does it cost over there? We're going to work through these issues in a cooperative sense to find the best way."

Metis' designs also call for building a large addition to the Channelside area, possibly a hotel or some other large development on the 3 ½-acre parking lot at Beneficial and Channelside drives. The land is owned by the port and zoned for retail, office or hotel space.

Klug confirmed that their negotiations with Metis include that parcel. The Port Authority wants to make sure that whatever Vinik's people have planned for the parcel allows trucks to access the port facilities along the waterfront.

Vinik's plans for Channelside should become public this fall. There will be a public hearing on the Metis' designs and terms of the deal. Klug said the goal is to put the agreement before the board for a vote on Dec. 18.

Times staff writer Bill Varian contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3404.

Lightning owner Jeff Vinik's group gaining ground on Channelside deal 10/16/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 16, 2012 11:07pm]
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