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New group enters Channelside saga, but Jeff Vinik still eyeing retail complex

A runner jogs past the Channelside entertainment complex at Tampa’s port waterfront last September.

EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times

A runner jogs past the Channelside entertainment complex at Tampa’s port waterfront last September.

TAMPA — It appears that a new ownership group has entered the convoluted Channelside Bay Plaza saga.

There is rampant speculation that a partnership between people linked to Convergent Capital Partners and the Liberty Group are vying to become the latest investors who want to turn around the perpetually troubled retail and entertainment complex.

Both groups are active players in Tampa Bay and Florida real estate. Neither group, however, returned calls for comment.

But the Tampa Port Authority said Irish Bank Resolution Corp., which took over the bank that foreclosed on Channelside, informed the port that it is talking to a new group of investors.

"We understand there is a group talking to the bank, but we're not sure what the make-up of the group is," said Tampa Port Authority general counsel Charles Klug.

They're not the only game in town, however. The former frontrunner to take control of Channelside isn't done with the complex yet.

Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik was once the top choice to take over the complex's lease and revamp the building. But after weeks of negotiating with the Irish bank that owns Channelside, Vinik suspended his group's bid in October because of "a significant legal issue."

But last Thursday, while he and his wife, Penny, were being honored at a Children's Dream Fund luncheon at the Floridan Palace Hotel, the Lightning owner told the assemblage that he's still interested in acquiring Channelside.

"We continue to remain interested in the Channelside project, as we are interested in all of the neighborhood around the Tampa Bay Times Forum," Lighting spokesman Bill Wickett wrote in an email. Wicket speaks on behalf of Vinik and his partners, Metis Channelside LLC.

Vinik owns the hockey team and the lease to the Times Forum, and his plans for Channelside have already won the support of the Tampa Port Authority's governing board. The Port Authority owns the land under the building and has to approve any new lease.

Convergent Capital Partners of Tampa and the private equity firm's CEO, Santosh Govindaraju, have been on a buying spree in recent years. The company said it has spent more than $370 million on real estate holdings across Florida since 2008. Govindaraju declined to comment last week.

The Liberty Group specializes in developing hotel and commercial properties. Under CEO Raxit Shah, the Clearwater company said it has $265 million in holdings across eight states. Shah did not return calls for comment.

Convergent and Liberty have already partnered on a new luxury boutique hotel in downtown Tampa: They plan to turn the old Mercantile Bank building into the hotel Aloft Tampa Downtown. Last year they paid $2 million for the eight-story Mercantile tower and plan to spend upward of $7 million to turn it into a high-end hotel with modern architecture.

Channelside's history has been marred by financial and legal problems, which came to a head when the complex's old owner defaulted on a $27 million loan in 2010. Vinik's group was negotiating to take over the lease but pulled back when it hit a stumbling block: The old operator, Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp. of New York, has a right to match any offer made for the complex. No new operator is likely to bid on Channelside until Ashkenazy gives up that right.

It was unknown Tuesday what the status of that clause was. The Tampa Port Authority did not return calls for comment on that issue.

"We'd like the entire area to become a first-class destination and feel that Channelside should be a major piece of the development," Wickett said via email. "We are hopeful that the eventual purchaser of the property shares that same vision."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3404.

New group enters Channelside saga, but Jeff Vinik still eyeing retail complex 03/05/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 5, 2013 9:37pm]
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