The sluggish economy has claimed a popular, yet controversial, grouping of bars and restaurants at Channelside Bay Plaza.
Margarita Mama's, Banana Joe's, the Velvet Room and Lucky's on the upper level were evicted a few weeks ago after falling behind on rent.
The clubs' owner, Michael Dennis, said a drop in business, especially during the summer, made it difficult to cover the $57,000 monthly rent.
"We had a thriving business and a great customer base,'' he said. "We just couldn't handle that much rent in this economy.''
Management said the bars' departure offers an opportunity to bring in fresh concepts and improve the plaza overall. Three years ago, Channelside made national headlines after a Carolina Panthers cheerleader was accused of having sex with a woman in Banana Joe's restroom, then punching a customer who complained.
So far, response from prospective tenants has been "overwhelming,'' said Brett Low, the plaza's general manager and leasing agent. The 7,000-square-foot Margarita Mama's space, in particular, offers prime views of the water and cruise ships.
Without naming names, Low said he is negotiating with a "well-known family-friendly restaurant'' to take over Margarita Mama's, Banana Joe's and the Velvet Room, which are interconnected. If approved, the deal would complement other efforts to revitalize the plaza, which has struggled to retain tenants and attract locals.
Taverna Opa, a Greek restaurant chain that opened in Ybor City but closed shortly after, is opening soon in the former Grille 29 space below Margarita Mama's. Low said a "large player'' also is interested in the shortlived Hook Nightclub space on the upper level, formerly McGraw's country bar.
The changing lineup is nothing new to Channelside, which opened in 2001 amid strong competition from the newly built Centro Ybor and St. Petersburg's BayWalk.
Margarita Mama's, Banana Joe's and Velvet Room came in 2002, joining Stump's Supper Club, Howl at the Moon and a few other businesses. Lucky's was a recent reincarnation of Sling Shots, which opened in 2006.
The addition of so many nightclubs didn't sit well with some city officials and other Channelside business owners who wanted a more family-friendly atmosphere.
The Margarita Mama's group filed for bankruptcy protection but came out of it earlier this year, Dennis said. He hopes to reopen in a new location.
His attorney, Michael Addison, called the closings a sign of the times. "It was a case of not enough traffic and people not spending as much money. They were paying top-dollar rent for space that wasn't being visited.''