Struggling Channelside Bay Plaza and the public agency that holds its lease appear ready to fight out their long-simmering disputes in court.
Tampa Port Authority board members unanimously gave their attorneys the green light Tuesday to sue and evict the center's owner, Channelside Bay Mall. The company owes more than $300,000 in fees, rent and interest. Channelside also is violating Tampa's fire code and failing to properly maintain the retail and entertainment center, the agency says.
Channelside is headed in the right direction, said Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, but no thanks to the current owners.
"I say we litigate, that we hold them to the letter of their lease," she said.
Attorneys will make one more effort to work out an agreement, said port counsel Charles Klug. Even if the current owners are evicted, he said, Channelside's lender or the port would take over and businesses wouldn't be affected, he said.
The center's New York owner, Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp., might sue the port authority, said attorney Jaime Austrich after Tuesday's meeting.
"The board came out pretty aggressively against us," he said. "My client may take an aggressive stance, too."
The Port Authority has mismanaged parking around the center, contributing to declining sales and tenants shuttering their doors, Austrich wrote in a letter to the agency Monday.
Channelside recently evicted four clubs: Margarita Mama's, Banana Joe's, the Velvet Room and Lucky's. The clubs' owner, Michael Dennis, said a decline in business, especially last summer, made it hard to cover $57,000 monthly rent. Channelside Bay Plaza isn't covering costs, Austrich said.
Channelside was designed as a specialty retail center with restaurants and entertainment when it opened in 2001. The center is home to an IMAX theater, a supper club, a Hooters and a Bennigan's. But the biggest crowds come for special events tied to sports and concerts at the St. Pete Times Forum.
Tenants validate stubs so customers parking in the Port Authority's garage receive a discount: 50 cents for the first four hours at the theater; $2 for the first three hours at restaurants and retailers. Under its lease, Channelside must pay the port $252,000 annually for the discount.
The owner stopped paying about a year ago, Klug says. It now owes $288,000 in parking fees and interest, plus nearly $14,000 for rent on a surface lot.
Meanwhile, Tampa Fire Marshal Melvin Jenkins informed center managers that Channelside does not meet fire code. More than 1,000 people jam into the center on busy weekends.
A crowd that size requires four fire-rated exits. Channelside has that many, but one doesn't meet fire inspection criteria, Jenkins said. The center's main tunnel from the courtyard to Channelside Drive has about 40 feet that could be dangerous if people tried to squeeze through in an emergency.
On Tuesday, Iorio blasted Channelside officials for failing to fix the problem.
"When some big event occurs and a fire occurs and people are headed for the exits, it won't be enough to say, 'We're having meetings.' "
Guy Revelle, an owner of four Channelside restaurant/clubs, said tenants sponsor most major events. They worked out a deal with Fire Marshal Jenkins to open gates to a Port Authority wharf so patrons have safe routes in and out during an emergency.
"Our events are now part of Tampa," Revelle said. "We're part of the community. Our landlord is not."
Steve Huettel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3384.