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BayWalk could soon have a new owner

ST. PETERSBURG — The withering retail complex in the heart of downtown St. Petersburg might have new life yet.

There have been 18 written offers for BayWalk since its owners put it on the market for $8 million in March, according to Mike Milano, managing director for the real estate firm Colliers International Tampa Bay.

"Right now we're looking at the three top bidders," said Milano, whose firm is marketing the center for owner CW Capital Asset Management. "We are in active discussions with one of those three."

He expects to announce the buyer within two weeks.

He wouldn't say how much money has been offered for the largely vacant 74,500-square-foot center the city invested $20 million in 11 years ago.

Money isn't the only factor driving the decision, Milano said.

"Some of the offers we received had higher prices but they were contemplating alternate uses other than retail … that may have involved some change in land use," he said. "We are looking for somebody who has the capability to restore BayWalk to a prominent, retail urban center."

While Milano wouldn't reveal the top bidders, a Connecticut-based nonprofit that aids developmentally disabled adults said it is among them.

Project Free made an $8 million cash offer for BayWalk, said Isabela Arango, the group's director of acquisitions. The nonprofit, which has an office in Gulfport, wants to offer developmentally disabled adults housing and on-the-job training in retail stores open to the public.

While the nonprofit isn't a typical retail developer, Arango believes the concept of a self-sustaining living, learning and working facility for disabled adults could be a national model.

"This is an incredible feat to help St. Petersburg get on the map," she said.

The group, which receives federal and private funding, would have a culinary school and other training staffed by local colleges and universities on the second floor and retail and restaurants on the first floor. A third floor would be added for housing.

A Toronto-based group called Pro-X Brownfield Inc. has offered $7.25 million in cash, according to Pinellas Park broker Bill Allard.

Pro-X wants to refurbish BayWalk and keep it as a retail and entertainment complex, he said.

But the group was told it is no longer in the running because they have too little retail experience, Allard said.

The company recently redeveloped a 100,000-square-foot office building in Toronto, but specializes in cleaning up and selling contaminated properties. Allard said he believes discrimination could be a factor.

"My buyers are infuriated because they personally feel (the sellers) don't want to sell it to Asians," Allard said. "This is a good ole boy town . . . and these are Asians from Canada and they don't want that to happen.

His clients have asked him to raise their offer to $7.5 million, which he planned to present to Colliers International today. He said he will be watching to see if BayWalk sells for less, and if so, his clients might bring a discrimination lawsuit.

Milano bristled at the suggestion. "I think (Pro-X) is a very capable, credible group. . . . They did not offer the highest price and they did not offer the best terms," he said. "We are negotiating with another group right now that offered better terms."

The city of St. Petersburg doesn't screen, review or help select BayWalk prospects, said Rick Mussett, who heads development. City officials are as much in the dark about who might buy the complex as anybody, he said.

Because the city has no ownership stake in the complex, the only way it could influence the purchase is if a certain stretch of sidewalk becomes a condition of the sale, Mussett said.

The public sidewalk in front of the complex became a flashpoint in 2009 when CW Capital sought control over it to turn away protesters, homeless people and loitering teens that were blamed for falling attendance. The City Council, in a 5-3 vote, ceded the sidewalk to private control, outraging some who said it infringed on free speech and assembly rights.

Turns out, however, that the sidewalk was never surrendered. The vote required BayWalk to do some procedural things that were never done. That agreement expires Sept. 30, so if the next buyer doesn't handle those matters before then, the sidewalk will remain public.

Mayor Bill Foster said if he's assured the new owner is sincere in turning around BayWalk, he'll advocate to extend private control of the sidewalk. Ultimately it would be up to the council.

None of the three top bidders' offers are contingent on having sidewalk rights, Milano said.

Allard said his clients also have no such interest.

"I called Pro-X and they all are laughing — they think that's ridiculous," he said. "They said (anybody) can set up a table and hand out flyers."

Times staff writer Michael Van Sickler and researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.

BayWalk could soon have a new owner 05/25/11 [Last modified: Thursday, May 26, 2011 12:42am]
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