Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Business

Channelside hazards must be fixed to hold Fourth of July fireworks

TAMPA — A busted fire alarm. A blocked firefighting valve. Exposed wiring. Damaged outlets. Flimsy overhead lights. Loose guardrails.

These safety issues at Channelside Bay Plaza must be fixed before the annual Fourth of July fireworks show, according to the Tampa Port Authority.

The port, which owns the land under the retail center, wrote a letter Tuesday to the bank that owns Channelside and the receiver that operates the property that outlined 18 fire and safety violations that must be fixed — or the port will make the repairs itself and bill them.

"Thousands will likely attend the Fourth of July fireworks celebration," wrote port general counsel Charles Klug, "and the Authority considers any endangerment of their personal safety while on the Retail Center premises absolutely unacceptable."

The safety violations add another complicated layer to the relationship between Channelside's custodians: the Tampa Port Authority and the Irish Bank Resolution Corp. The two were already at odds over selling and reviving the failing downtown complex.

The bank owns Channelside because it foreclosed on the property in 2010 after the old owner defaulted on a $27 million loan. The firm Madison Marquette acts as the receiver and runs the center for the bank. The port's governing board has final approval over any sale because it owns the land the center was built on.

The latest attempt to sell the center ended on May 21. The port's governing board voted to end Liberty Channelside LLC's agreement to buy the Channelside lease from the IBRC. Relations have been testy ever since.

To try to end that impasse, the port sent another letter to the bank on Tuesday, this one extending an olive branch to the bank in the form of a possible solution to finding a prospective buyer for Channelside who would satisfy both parties.

The Tampa Port Authority said it wants to work with the bank to review proposals to turn Channelside around. Both sides should select the best owner to take over the property, the port said. Up until now, that's been the sole job of the bank.

"I think we just want to show that we're interested in moving along and trying to get someone in there as soon as possible," Klug said Wednesday. "We're assuring our willingness to work mutually together instead of separately."

After the bank finds a buyer and signs a purchase agreement for the lease, it sends the deal to the port's governing board for approval. But under that process, the bidders who have made a play for Channelside in the past year — Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and the Liberty group — saw their efforts fall short.

Vinik stopped negotiating with the bank last year when a surprise legal hurdle emerged. Liberty signed a deal with the bank but saw it rejected before its proposal was even ready for board approval.

When Liberty's negotiations with the port stalled over financial and decorum issues, the port's governing board decided it no longer wanted to deal with Liberty. Board members voted unanimously to end that group's deal with the bank. The port's diplomatic letter reiterated that it will not accept a Liberty deal.

The port said it offered to work with the bank on the front end of the process last year. But the bank's reaction to the port's offer was "kind of mixed," Klug said.

The port hopes the bank will now reconsider. Detente is certainly needed. Each side has blamed the other for failing to resolve the situation. They're also on opposing sides of a lawsuit the port filed to evict the bank from the Channelside property. The trial is set for November.

In the past the Tampa Port Authority has discussed its "carrot-and-stick" strategy of encouraging cooperation with the bank while maintaining the threat of the eviction lawsuit.

But port officials said Wednesday that the safety violations are not part of that strategy. They are a completely separate issue that must be addressed before July 4.

The port sent 18 photos of the violations to Channelside's owner and receiver and told them they must conduct a "thorough inspection" by Tuesday to ferret out other safety problems and have them all fixed by June 23. Both sides will meet that day to conduct a joint inspection.

Representatives of the bank and receiver could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404.

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