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BayWalk hit with foreclosure suit

It's official: BayWalk, the St. Petersburg entertainment complex celebrated as a catalyst for downtown's renaissance, is facing foreclosure.

Wells Fargo Bank has filed suit in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court seeking foreclosure of a mortgage on the $50-million complex that opened in 2000.

The court filing does not affect BayWalk stores, which remain open. Christmas decorations filled the entertainment complex's open-air center on Wednesday.

The lawsuit was expected. BayWalk owner Fred Bullard Jr. admitted last week he is refusing to make monthly payments of about $120,000 on the loan after settlement negotiations between Bullard and the lender broke down.

Bullard said he did not plan to fight the foreclosure.

"We are a little bit puzzled as to why they wouldn't cooperate and help us get this project back on its feet," Bullard told the St. Petersburg Times last week. Bullard could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Once a spark plug for downtown retail, BayWalk has been saddled with a reputation as a hangout for raucous teens and has had well-publicized difficulties attracting tenants.

Several prominent retail spaces remain empty, though a store selling Super Bowl merchandise is temporarily occupying a storefront along the complex's first floor.

BayWalk owners also are still fighting a lawsuit in the case of Josiah Wineberger, the child badly hurt after a music speaker fell on him in February 2007.

Bruce Rabon, who owns two clothing stores and has rented space since BayWalk opened in 2000, said he is happy the foreclosure is proceeding.

"I'm hoping it's going to turn around," Rabon said. "I'm being real positive about it. Hopefully the mortgage lender will sell it, and we can get this going. This is one unbelievable piece of property."

Bullard took control of BayWalk in September, buying out the Sembler Co. for an undisclosed amount and pledging to invest heavily in renovations and improvements in the complex.

The news thrilled city officials, who were hoping the downtown anchor could be rejuvenated.

Now it appears, after less than three months, BayWalk is destined for another owner.

It's not the first time a prominent Tampa Bay area entertainment complex teetered on financial ruin. In 2004, Centro Ybor, another Sembler Co. development, fell into foreclosure. In that case, the city of Tampa was forced to step in to make $750,000 annual payments.

And Tampa's Channelside project sold at a deep discount in 2005 as its owner struggled to fill its retail and restaurant space.

In court filings, Wells Fargo and CWCapital Asset Management say they did not authorize the sale of the property to Bullard or the subsequent removal of BayWalk's property manager.

Wells Fargo says Bullard owes $14.46-million.

The bank has asked a judge to sell the entertainment complex at public auction.

No timetable for the foreclosure has been set. A lawyer for Wells Fargo did not return a call seeking comment.

Times staff researcher Carolyn Edds and staff writer Piper Jones Castillo contributed to this report.

BayWalk hit with foreclosure suit 11/26/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 3, 2008 3:42pm]

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