Tenants, potential tenants and commercial real estate brokers describe dealings with BayWalk's representatives over the past year as exasperating and puzzling.
Some even wonder if there is some hidden agenda to empty the struggling retail center, which is about 20 percent occupied.
Since Colliers International signed on to market the property in March, several entities have expressed serious interest in buying BayWalk, which is priced at $8 million, according to Colliers spokesman Kyle Parks.
If there was interest in BayWalk even when the economy was slower, the right management should be able to capitalize on the growing momentum downtown and fill the complex, some brokers say.
Protesters, rowdy youths, a shooting and the sour economy have all been blamed for the dramatic decline of a property that many called the city's $20 million crown jewel 10 years ago. But frustrated would-be tenants suggest that baffling management moves in recent years have hampered any kind of BayWalk comeback:
• SPiN, a hip table tennis club and restaurant: BayWalk couldn't grasp the concept.
• The Savory Spice Shop: BayWalk was more interested in bars and restaurants.
• The Loft, a high-end sports bar: BayWalk decided to go in another direction.
The home furnishings store HermanHome vacated 3,500 square feet in BayWalk earlier this year. BayWalk representatives were uninterested in ideas to boost traffic, co-partner Ed Biggs said, and routine maintenance such as trash pickup and bathroom upkeep dropped to ridiculously low levels.
"It had been a year and not one new lease had been signed. We're sitting in this place that's crumbling, and they're blowing off potential clients," said Biggs. "My wife and I would stay up at night wondering what their agenda was," Biggs said.
HermanHome now operates in an 8,300-square-foot building the business bought and renovated at 646 Second Ave. S.
Curtis Rorebeck, BayWalk's leasing agent, said he is sorry Biggs felt the center wasn't supporting his business.
"We liked their use for the project," he said.
Rorebeck added that there were two separate sets of negotiations with SPiN, and in the end he was told the table tennis club decided on another location. As for the Loft, he said the landlord made a business decision not to purse it as a tenant.
"Not every prospect is a good fit, but we worked hard on (various deals)," he said. "Unfortunately we weren't able to finalize their deals."
Not everybody felt a cold shoulder at BayWalk. Frank Chivas, an owner of Salt Rock Grill in Indian Shores, said he was offered good rates and terms but the timing was wrong for him.
"If they offered the deal that they offered me (then), I'd probably jump back in today," he said. "I think it's a great site and I think it's going to be interesting to see what happens there."
Other businesses felt differently.
New York-based SPiN is opening this fall at Jannus Live after serious interest in the former Dish space at BayWalk fell on deaf ears there.
"They kept saying this isn't available and that wasn't available," said real estate broker Jon LaBudde, who represented SPiN.
"They said they didn't get the concept. I was really dumbfounded," he said. "I don't know what's going on in there unless they're intentionally letting it empty out. Unless they're trying to get the bank to devalue it."
The Savory Spice Shop invested well over $100,000 in creating a general store look on Fourth Avenue just off Beach Drive. Owner Paul Bailey also considered BayWalk last summer when scouting sites.
"We met with one of the guys there, and they basically said they were looking for bars and restaurants," he said. "They didn't show us space or talk about rates."
A sports bar wasn't the right fit either. Angelo Proestopoulos and his partners were very close to opening a high-end sports bar and nightclub at BayWalk in May. They provided bank records showing access to $300,000 cash and $600,000 in assets along with references from food supplies and liquor companies.
Proestopoulos' group even started a Facebook page for the Loft at BayWalk after issuing a letter of intent to BayWalk representatives. The page had 1,500 friends within 20 days. Blueprints were drawn. Contractors were ready and waiting.
"Everything was done. Then we get a phone call and they said they were thinking about going a different way," Proestopoulos said. "They said, 'There's a company that's showing interest and they have chain recognition.' "
He believes that company was SPiN, but BayWalk didn't want SPiN in the former Dish space either. SPiN partners liked that space and pictured a Ping-Pong table outside on the balcony overlooking the street. But BayWalk representatives wanted SPiN to consider the former Gratzzi space in a less prominent corner instead.
At the time Splitsville, an upscale entertainment venue that's family friendly with bowling, billiards and a gourmet restaurant, was in talks with BayWalk about leasing much of the former Dan Marino's and Wet Willie's space.
"I told (BayWalk), 'You're going to have a bowling alley and a Ping-Pong club both in the same place. That's a mini tourist attraction. What more could you ask for?' " LaBudde said. "They said, 'We're not really interested and we don't really get it.' "
Academy Award winning actor Susan Sarandon is an investor in SPiN, but even a celebrity apparently didn't carry much clout with BayWalk leasing representatives. St. Petersburg Times outdoors editor Terry Tomalin, Sarandon's brother, is also a partner in the club.
Eighteen months ago, the city ceded control of the sidewalk in front of the BayWalk entrance. Representatives of Ciminelli Real Estate Services, BayWalk's property manager, and Rorebeck said potential tenants would sign contracts if they knew protesters wouldn't affect their businesses.
"They were always working on something, and they wanted the right mix," said City Council member Leslie Curran. "Obviously by their lack of action there is the strong signal that there was no plan in place except to unload it."
Nearby Beach Drive is fully leased. The side streets are getting there. If the momentum of merchants opening downtown continues, brokers agree BayWalk is next.
"People are all over that downtown core area looking for spaces to locate their businesses. The BayWalk spaces are very needed. With the amount of calls I get for property on and off Beach Drive, the activity level has really escalated," said Paula Clair Smith, a broker with Osprey Real Estate Services. "Any shopping center person can tell you, you need an anchor. That, and having a mix of national tenants and some local flavor will keep that thing on the map."
Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or [email protected].