Bill Edwards poised to buy struggling BayWalk

ST. PETERSBURG — BayWalk, the city's crown jewel that turned to a pumpkin, is about to be bought by a new owner who promises to make it a vibrant part of downtown once again.

The buyer is Bill Edwards, a longtime mortgage magnate and music producer who has become downtown St. Petersburg's preeminent entertainment and development player.

"It's a great piece of property that needs to be rejuvenated and put back together," Edwards said after confirming the pending sale Friday night. "I'm an ex-Marine, so I want to stop the bleeding, treat the wound and stop the shock."

He plans to close on the largely empty complex on Sept. 15. He would not reveal a sale price.

Edwards said he will likely change BayWalk's name to disassociate the complex from its sharp fall from glory.

He also wants to move the escalators and public restrooms. Beyond that, he said he doesn't have a clear plan for the makeup of tenants or redesign of the 74,500-square-foot retail center.

"I've walked around that place for about 12 hours in the sun for the last two weeks and I've looked at this and looked at that," he said. "This probably sounds kind of crazy to buy it and not know exactly what you're going to do with it, but we're going to redevelop it and make it very special for downtown."

Edwards said he has spoken indirectly with local and national anchors.

"I'd love to see something like a Victoria's Secret downtown, not that I've talked to them. I'd like to have (stores) that should be closer by so people wouldn't have to go to International Plaza for everything," he said.

At one time BayWalk was home to national retailer Ann Taylor and it's still hanging on to two national chains: Chico's and White House Black Market.

What can Edwards do differently to attract not just the retailers but also the shoppers needed to support them?

"I'd like to make it more user friendly and people friendly. There are a lot of people downtown and they're rocking, they're doing things. There are things at night that could attract people to the area. I'm bringing in some designers and talking with the city."

Known as a creative yet also contentious force, Edwards, 66, is a Treasure Island businessman who wears many hats. He is chief executive of Mortgage Investors Corp., president and CEO of The Club at Treasure Island and head of his own music production company.

Edwards' mortgage company, which did $4.1 billion in loans last year, has been scrutinized, and cleared, for aggressive sales tactics to veterans.

In April, his music promotion company was awarded the job of managing and operating the city-owned Mahaffey Theater on the premise that he could transform the sleepy facility into a bustling complex. He partnered on a $1 million renovation of Jannus Landing, only to pull out after it reopened last year. After buying the bankrupt Treasure Island Tennis & Yacht Club, he invested in a makeover and brought Vegas-style acts and a few Grammy winners.

With Mahaffey and now potentially BayWalk, Edwards has two of downtown's most crucial but under-performing assets.

"Given his track record with entertainment and his history with what he's doing with the Mahaffey and downtown, this could be great for BayWalk," said City Council member Leslie Curran. "BayWalk needs someone who will look out for the best interest of downtown, and it seems like Bill Edwards is doing that."

When BayWalk opened in 2000, it was deemed a success. Visitors flocked to the complex's upscale shops, nightclubs and restaurants. It seemed like a wise investment of the $20 million in taxpayer money it took to finance it.

But it soon struggled after a peculiar series of well-publicized events involving protesters and wayward teens. At times, the complex seemed cursed. During a 2008 concert, a large stereo speaker fell 20 feet and landed on a 3-year-old's head, leaving him with severe brain damage.

A group of investors, CW Capital Asset Management, took part ownership of the complex in 2009. BayWalk's fortunes took another turn when CW Capital lobbied to privatize the entrance in front of the complex so protesters, homeless people and teens could be turned away.

The move drew a storm of protests from homeless advocates and free speech supporters, but the City Council approved the move in one of the most controversial votes in recent city history.

Yet BayWalk continued to struggle and became more vacant. The property was put on the block for $8 million in March. According to Colliers International Tampa Bay, there were 18 written offers for BayWalk. But with no subsequent sale, those close to the complex grew restless. By July, BayWalk's last remaining major tenant, Muvico Entertainment, sued BayWalk owners for neglect of the downtown property and breach of contract.

BayWalk's current owners couldn't be reached Friday. Kyle Parks, a spokesman for Colliers, said he couldn't comment.

"We're not comfortable with making a public announcement of the sale until there's a closing and we can announce that," Parks said.

But Edwards couldn't hide his enthusiasm for the project.

"I think it's a great opportunity," he said, "and I love challenges obviously because that's a hell of a challenge I'm looking at."

Bill Edwards poised to buy struggling BayWalk 09/03/11 [Last modified: Thursday, October 27, 2011 10:31am]

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