TAMPA — The latest attempt to save Channelside Bay Plaza is finished. But the blame game is just getting started.
The Irish Bank Resolution Corp., which owns the retail center, fired back at the Tampa Port Authority's allegations that the bank has held back the redevelopment of the downtrodden downtown complex.
Bank officials in Ireland have refused for several months now to publicly comment on the Channelside matter. But in a recent letter to the port, the bank's Tampa attorney, Barbara Hart, blamed the Tampa Port Authority for sinking the latest attempt to revive Channelside Bay Plaza.
The bank said that the board's unanimous vote last week to end Liberty Channelside LLC's attempts to buy the complex's lease showed that the port never wanted Liberty to buy it in the first place.
"Unfortunately, in light of the Authority's excessive and commercially unreasonable financial demands on Liberty, and the Board's actions in voting May 21st without notice to Liberty, to (the Irish Bank Resolution Corp.), or to the public," said the letter, "it now appears that the Authority never had any intention of working with IBRC or acting in good faith."
The IBRC took over the old Anglo Irish Bank Corp., which made the original $27 million loan to buy Channelside in 2006. When the old owner defaulted, Anglo Irish foreclosed on Channelside in 2010. The IBRC has been trying to sell it ever since, but cannot do so alone. Channelside was built on port land, so the port must approve any sale.
The port complained that Liberty Channelside, a new venture with no assets, needed to prove it would fund improvements to the complex. The port demanded Liberty pay $8 million up front in escrow to fund those upgrades. Liberty balked and countered with $2 million.
The bank said the Tampa Port Authority never made such a demand before.
"In the two and a half years that IBRC has carried Channelside … the Authority has never once before made an Escrow Demand, prior to its demand upon Liberty," the letter stated.
The bank also said that port's demand that Liberty pay millions up front in escrow to redevelop Channelside "was excessive and commercially unreasonable, and is inconsistent with usual or customary business practices."
The IBRC also fired a warning shot at the port's "evict the bank" legal strategy to take over Channelside. Port officials believe the lawsuit could be the latter half of a carrot-and-stick approach of cajoling the IBRC to find a more acceptable developer to the port. The port's lawsuit could go to trial in Hillsborough County circuit court as soon as Nov. 18.
The bank said that litigation strategy "will be aggressively contested." The port sued because it believes Channelside has fallen into disrepair. The bank denied that it has.
The Liberty bid was not on the board's May 21 agenda, but the board voted to bring it up anyway while negotiations had stalled. The port board then voted to kill the deal.
The bank said that the "uncalendared and unnoticed vote are certain to have a detrimental effect on IBRC's ability to market" Channelside to potential buyers in the future.
A letter from the Tampa Port Authority to the bank reiterated its reasons for rejecting Liberty's bid: Liberty failed to submit the proper financial paperwork; it refused to show proof that it could fund redeveloping the property; and that Liberty members engaged in "unprofessional behavior" with port staff during negotiations. Liberty later apologized.
The chairman of the port's board, William "Hoe" Brown, denied the bank's allegation that the port acted in bad faith when it rejected Liberty's bid for Channelside.
"That's not the case, obviously," Brown said Tuesday evening. "We only want someone who has a vision and a commitment to the Channelside district, and I don't believe we saw the correct commitment we would like in the Liberty people. They talked about things they wanted to do but wouldn't commit any funding to prove they would do it.
"We'll work with anybody and everybody. What we want to see is what's best for the community and what's best for Channelside and the region."