On Thursday night, the Tampa Bay Times Forum was rocking with college hockey. A block away, Channelside Bay Plaza was nearly empty. The lackluster crowd is the norm. "This is actually busier than most nights," Tara Stinkiawicz said. "We need more attractions. It would create competition between the businesses but bring more people." Stinkiawicz knows all about slow nights. She is a server at Splitsville but was not working Thursday as she strolled through the complex to meet friends. Developers designed Channelside as an upscale specialty complex that would attract hordes of people when it opened beside the Florida Aquarium in early 2001. Business is good on the weekends or before special events at the Tampa Bay Times Forum. But Channelside draws few patrons during the week when no large sports, entertainment or convention activities are going on and the cruise ships that dock nearby are at sea.
The complex has failed to capitalize on the thousands of locals who work in the area or who live in recently built condos. Parking is also a problem.
Last week brought new optimism to the long-suffering development.
The Tampa Bay Times revealed that at least two well-connected local groups have submitted bids to buy Channelside. Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik is in one. Bill Edwards, who recently bought St. Petersburg's BayWalk, is in the other.
The Times asked business people and residents what the new owners might do to make Channelside more successful. Among the suggestions:
• Create a more eclectic mix of small retail shops to attract daytime customers.
• Add more casual dining, to attract the lunchtime crowd.
• Offer kid-friendly attractions.
• Change the architecture to take advantage of the complex's waterfront location and Riverwalk.
Marvin Meeks, owner of Urban Living TampaBay, a boutique real estate company minutes from Channelside, wants some mom-and-pop and independent retail shops.
"We're not just a tourist stop," Meeks said. "People live here. The buildings are here. The infrastructure is not."
Steve Patterson, president of Miami-based Related Development, which is building the 356-unit apartment complex with 4,800 square feet of stores near Channelside, said the Channel District's growth makes Channelside Bay Plaza a potential gold mine.
"Hopefully they'll find a mix of tenants that would accomplish that," Patterson said. "I don't know who's missing from that submarket. It'd be nice for Channelside to have a grocer, but I'm not sure it'd fit there or that theme."
Hugo Bellanger of Oldsmar went Thursday for the hockey game and said Channelside lacks venues for families in the evening.
"It needs to be more kid-friendly," he said. "There is nothing for them to do here."
Peter and Sharon Armstrong live in the nearby Towers of Channelside and frequent the center for dinner. Both would like more restaurants that don't blare music and others that serve in the morning and afternoon.
"It needs a Starbucks or a Panera Bread," Sharon Armstrong said as the couple walked their three dogs Thursday evening. "It's all nighttime places."
The empty stores dismay Peter Armstrong.
"I can't see how it can't survive," he said. "It's convenient for all the people here."
Jim Michalak, co-managing partner of Plaza Advisors in Tampa, said many eateries would struggle during the day while neighborhood residents are at work, and downtown workers typically walk to lunch near their offices.
"It would be difficult to cater to the lunchtime crowd," he said.
In January, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn suggested any new Channelside owner take what is a "poorly designed complex" and orient it more to the waterfront.
"You blow out that back wall," Buckhorn said, and a new owner could not only open up views to the water but could extend Riverwalk to the Channel District.
Having no large grocery store or big-box retailer nearby also hinders drawing local people.
James Medefind, an associate at Marcus & Millichap in Tampa, said a Publix nearby would draw more local residents. He pointed out that he lives in nearby Harbour Island and never visits the complex.
The new buyers, he added, also need to add retail businesses in the vacant store fronts. But given the slow growth in retail, he doesn't expect a mad rush of businesses to open until the economy improves.
"As it stands today, it's not going to survive as a restaurant destination," Medefind said. "That venue is going to struggle for the next three years."
The $49 million Channelside complex opened in 2001 with few tenants and strong competition from Centro Ybor and St. Petersburg's BayWalk, which opened about the same time. All three centers have had financial struggles. The bank took back Channelside from the owners after they defaulted on a $27 million loan.
The Channel District looks nothing like it did when Channelside opened 11 years ago.
Thousands of people now call the district home. Condo and apartment buildings are full. Talk of adding a grocery store has swirled for years.
Some of Channelside's current tenants see a bright future.
Neil Kiefer, chief executive officer for Clearwater-based Hooters Management Corp., said the firm's restaurant at Channelside eclipsed sales records last year. A local owner, he said, would be the best outcome for the center.
"We plan on being there for years to come," he said.
Ed Kobel, president of Tampa-based DeBartolo Development, believes Channelside has potential to grow. The center, he said, was built before its time because the residential growth in the neighborhood occurred years later. Still, it is crucial to find a mix that caters to tourists, local residents and downtown workers.
"You need a mix that fits the demographics," he said. "It takes a little touch, but it can be done. Tampa is on the rise."
Times staff writer Justin George contributed to this report. Mark Puente can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter at twitter.com/markpuente.