ST. PETERSBURG — DeBartolo Development of Tampa and a Chicago firm, M&J Wilkow, owner of Tampa's Centro Ybor, are considering making offers to buy BayWalk, downtown's centerpiece shopping and entertainment center.
But there's a catch. Neither company says it would bid enough to pay off the property's $14.5-million outstanding mortgage.
The companies' position means the bank currently foreclosing on BayWalk likely would have to accept a loss on the property or hold out for better offers, which could thrust the center's remaining retailers into a period of uncertainty.
BayWalk faces foreclosure after current owner Fred Bullard of St. Petersburg failed to renegotiate loan terms. Bullard is prepared to walk away from the site, which he says is worth less than $10-million.
Executives at both DeBartolo and M&J Wilkow confirmed to the St. Petersburg Times this week that they have active interest in BayWalk — if the price is right.
"It's not worth the mortgage," said M&J Wilkow senior vice president David Harvey. "BayWalk has potential. The location is great. But only if it's sold at a price that reflects its true value."
To quantify BayWalk's free fall, Harvey discussed publicly for the first time a contract his company had to purchase BayWalk in early 2008.
The price: $23-million.
The sale fell through as BayWalk's financial foothold softened. Harvey said he's glad now the deal died. "In retrospect, I'm very lucky I didn't step in there then," he said.
Greg Sembler, CEO of St. Petersburg-based Sembler Co., BayWalk's original developer, also confirmed the negotiation with M&J Wilkow.
"Things deteriorated to the point that we couldn't hold the sale together," he said. Sembler then turned over control to Bullard in September.
In the past eight months, several BayWalk storefronts have become vacant. Retail anchor Ann Taylor announced last week that it is leaving, and movie theater company Muvico said a few weeks ago it was considering pulling out.
M&J Wilkow owns 18 retail properties in nine states.
In 2006, the company paid about $16-million for Centro Ybor, a retail and restaurant complex in Tampa. There, it plans a Tampa location of L'Olivier Bistro, and wants to spend almost $3-million remodeling part of the 20-screen Muvico movie theater into office space, Harvey said.
DeBartolo Development president Ed Kobel said his company also was interested in purchasing BayWalk when it first came on the market in late 2007.
Despite a lackluster 2008, Kobel said BayWalk still presents an opportunity.
DeBartolo Development is one of the nation's bigger shopping center and mixed-use developers.
"We will relook at it," Kobel said. "I think, long term, it's going to be a great value. We love what's happened downtown. We like the way the city's running the town with all the special events and the waterfront and the stuff at Vinoy."
Would bank sell?
Finding a willing buyer for BayWalk might be less difficult than negotiating a price acceptable to the foreclosing bank.
The complex's value has dropped at least 37 percent and perhaps as much as 60 percent since early 2008, when it nearly sold for $23-million, according to estimates of real estate firms.
Would the bank take a lower offer, even one lower than the current mortgage balance?
Or would it hold on to the property until the market rebounds?
CWCapital Asset Management, which controls the $14.5-million BayWalk mortgage on behalf of Wells Fargo bank, did not return a call seeking comment.
"I wouldn't say they need to sell it at a song," Kobel said. "I would say, sell it for what it's worth.
"In general, banks have been very flexible in trying to be realistic," Kobel said. "Really, none of us have experienced the kinds of challenges we're facing when it comes to commercial loans. These are extraordinary times."