Saturday, May 26, 2018
Business

New buyer emerges for Channelside

TAMPA — Channelside Bay Plaza could have a new owner in the coming months and it's not Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik.

The legal clause that clouded the future of the failing entertainment-retail complex has also been resolved. And court records show that a potential buyer has emerged and is negotiating a deal or has already struck one with the bank that foreclosed on Channelside in 2010.

Who's the buyer? That's not yet clear, but its definitely not the Vinik-led partnership that emerged last year as a potential savior for the tarnished waterfront property. A Vinik spokesman said Thursday that the group has not revived its plans for Channelside.

A possible contender for Channelside could be an ownership group formed by Liberty Group and Convergent Capital Partners, whose interest in buying it has been the subject of intense speculation in Tampa Bay real estate circles. A Liberty executive declined to comment.

But there is clearly movement on the Channelside front. Hillsborough court records revealed that there is a "prospective purchaser" of the lease. The chairman of the Tampa Port Authority's governing board also learned that the former owner, Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp. of New York, is no longer in a position to block a deal.

"It's our understanding that it has been taken care of," said chairman William "Hoe" Brown, "that Ashkenazy has been taken care of."

The 234,520-square-foot Channelside complex opened in 2001 and has seemingly struggled ever since. But the most recent and relevant history started in 2010 when Ashkenazy defaulted on a $27 million loan and the Irish bank that held the mortgage foreclosed on Channelside.

Last year the Vinik group negotiated with the Irish bank to buy the Channelside lease and revealed its plan to revitalize the complex to the Tampa Port Authority board. Those designs called for an elevated walkway to the parking garage, bringing in shops and restaurants and tying it to Vinik's hockey team and their home, the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

But in the fall it was revealed that Ashkenazy had a right of first-refusal. It had 10 days to match any offer for the same price plus an additional $375,000. The Vinik-led partnership pulled its bid in October, saying it would not sign a deal until the title was "free and clear."

That appears to have happened. The terms of the settlement with Ashkenazy or when it was reached were not known. But another sign that the Channelside sale is moving again is the revelation of a potential buyer in court records.

A document filed Thursday in the 2010 Channelside foreclosure case asked a Hillsborough circuit judge to let the "purchaser" hire the receiver now running the place, Madison Marquette, to help the buyer with "re-merchandising, re-tenanting, and re-marketing."

The document also refers to "the Purchaser's potential purchase of the property." That could mean the group is still negotiating with the bank or has signed a deal with the bank but hasn't had it approved yet by the Tampa Port Authority. The authority owns the land under Channelside and its governing board has the final approval over any deal.

No such bid has been submitted to the port. But if one is, the port staff would review the structure of the ownership group, its financing, its designs and its plans for turning Channelside around. The bid would become public record 30 days later.

The board will then review the bid and hold a public vote. Its chairman, Brown, said whoever wants to buy Channelside better have a good plan for saving it. Otherwise the board could reject the plan, opening the door for a competing ownership group — perhaps even the Vinik group. But a Vinik spokesman would not comment on that possibility.

A joint Convergent-Liberty bid would bring together two strong real estate players. The private equity firm Convergent has purchased $370 million worth of Florida property since 2008. Hotel and commercial developer Liberty holds $265 million worth of property in eight states.

"It would certainly be nice to see what anybody's ideas are for the area," Brown said, "and what they might be able to do to get done for the Channel District area as a whole."

But the board will be wary, Brown said.

"We certainly don't want to get into the same situation as with the Ashkenazy group."

Times staff writer Philip Morgan contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404.

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