The Sembler Co. has sold controlling interest in the BayWalk entertainment center in St. Petersburg to entrepreneur Fred Bullard for an undisclosed price.
Bullard, who developed Feather Sound, ran Durango Steak House and owned the former USFL Jacksonville Bulls pro football franchise, took full control on Thursday of what had been the spark plug to reviving retail shopping in downtown St. Petersburg. He closed on a deal that adds Sembler's 50 percent managing partner interest to the 50 percent he already held.
The 73-year-old Bullard knows that BayWalk needs a tuneup. He owns two stores there — Ammazza Pizza and Gratzzi Ristorante — and is "excited and started re-evaluating everything." The retail complex is 25 percent vacant and dogged by a reputation as a hangout for rowdy teens.
City officials, who have no role in the sale but own the BayWalk parking garage, were encouraged by the news. "Fred really seems energized to provide a needed lift to a project that was critical to the downtown renaissance" said Mayor Rick Baker.
Including the garage, BayWalk has 130,000 square feet of retail space plus an 80,000-square-foot movie theater owned by Muvico Theaters LLC.
"I'm glad we've finally got some fresh blood that hopefully will do something to change perceptions about what BayWalk is and get us back where we were," said Bruce Rabon, owner of Hurricane Pass Outfitters.
Bullard, deceased developer Van McNeal and prolific St. Petersburg shopping center builder Mel Sembler all said they teamed up a decade ago to build BayWalk as much to lift a moribund downtown retailing community in their hometown as to turn a fat profit.
Eleven months ago, Sembler began seeking a buyer for its stake in a project that cost $50-million to build.
More known for building shopping centers anchored by Publix and Target than Ann Taylor and Chico's, Sembler sought a buyer with more experience and clout with the stores that roost in entertainment centers. But the credit crunch, sluggish economy and weakening commercial real estate market kept the line short.
In the end, Sembler cashed out "a little better than break-even" on BayWalk counting management fees, said Greg Sembler, chief executive officer.
"It was fun and gratifying to pull off a project off so important to our community, but we've got to get back to basics," he said.
A Jacksonville native who has called St. Petersburg home for 40 years and married a onetime Channel 10 weather forecaster, Bullard has limited experience in entertainment centers. But he's a veteran in Florida real estate. He sold the last lots in his 2,000-acre Queens Harbor golf community in Duval County a few years ago, is working on another 4,000-acre residential project there and recently sold the last condo units in a new Ritz Carlton on Fort Lauderdale beach.
His son Fred III, who opened his own retail comic book store while still in high school, will head BayWalk leasing.
Sembler acknowledged the project needs fresh thinking.
Most of the original leases for national tenants come due over the next three years. An anchor restaurant space is empty. Muvico, which has been losing money at BayWalk, had threatened to pull out by year's end if something didn't change.
"What BayWalk is now is not what we signed up for," said Michael Whalen, chief executive of the Fort Lauderdale theater chain. "But we're excited to see a new owner with a new vision."
Muvico, which spent $1.5-million adding an IMAX projection system, wants to cut the 20 screens to 12 and add upscale food, VIP seating and valet parking. The Pier Aquarium wants to take over half of the theater building for a marine sciences center but hasn't raised the estimated $5.5-million to do it. Meantime, Muvico hired leasing people to find retailers to rent the space.
Mark Albright can be reached at [email protected] or 727-893-8252.