Speculation abounds in wake of port's Channelside purchase

TAMPA — Mayor Bob Buckhorn isn't ready to spike the Channelside Bay Plaza football just yet.

The mayor and the rest of the Tampa Port Authority governing board voted Tuesday to settle its lawsuit with the Irish Bank Resolution Corp. and buy the deteriorating downtown complex from the bank for $5.75 million.

"We want the process to come to a conclusion," Buckhorn said Wednesday. "At that point I think there will be a sigh of relief."

Once judges approve the deal, then the real work will begin: finding the right developer, the right vision, the right plan and the right price to turn around what may be the most snake-bitten 234,520 square feet of real estate in Tampa Bay.

"They need a vision and a business plan," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman, who sits on the port board. "It's all got to work out to give us the best benefit."

The timing of the vote was a surprise, but not the maneuver itself. The port has spent months considering whether to buy Channelside to end its 11-month stalemate with the IBRC.

The marriage was destined to fail: the bank owns the building, but the port owns the land. The bank has sole power to negotiate a deal with a developer, but the port has the right to veto any deal. Neither could agree on who should revive Channelside, so one had to go.

Both agreed it should be the bank. Both pledged, in a joint statement, to work together to get court approval for the sale in the next three to eight weeks.

By taking ownership and control of Channelside, the port can do what it has waited years to do: solicit plans and bids, select a developer and negotiate financial and legal terms without interference from the bank.

"I just want the best minds with the deepest pockets to come to my table," Buckhorn said. "I want people a lot smarter than me to put their best ideas to paper."

The last thing the port wants to do is run Channelside or try to turn it around itself.

"I'm not a retail guy, I'm a tugboat guy," said port board chairman Stephen Swindal, who led negotiations with the bank. "I don't know these things. I have to rely on the experts for that."

The port is looking for a developer with the means, vision and expertise to turn Channelside around. It needs millions in upgrades, a new vision to tie it to the revived Channel District and the right mix of restaurants and retail to bring people back. The board does not want a return to the days when bars dominated party-all-night Channelside.

There has been no lack of ideas. Bidders have proposed elevated pedestrian bridges to the parking garage, putting a small hotel on top of Channelside and erecting a high-rise hotel in the parking lot next door.

Structural changes may be needed more than cosmetic ones. One of the biggest complaints is the complex is closed both to the water and to Channelside Drive. Some want to tear part of it down to open it up.

Developer Ken Stoltenberg's bold solution: bulldoze Channelside and start all over again.

"Everybody has been looking at this thing for what — 10 years now? — as far as how to fix it?" he said. "And maybe there is a way to fix it. But maybe you look at the whole thing and say, maybe the way to fix it is to do something completely different."

He said the $5.75 million price tag might not make demolition prohibitive. The Irish bank originally loaned $27 million for Channelside in 2006, then foreclosed on it in 2010.

Buckhorn is not against that. But he said whoever does that better be able to afford to build something bigger and better.

Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik tried to bid on Channelside last year. Would he do so again? His spokesman declined to comment Wednesday.

But the board remains interested in Vinik's proposal, dubbed "Tampa Live." It's a small version of the L.A. Live mix of residential and retail built around Los Angeles' Staples Center arena. Vinik could bring the same flavor to the home of his hockey team, the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

Buckhorn envisions the Channel District becoming the entertainment corner of downtown. A new Channelside could be the missing piece to making the Florida Aquarium, the Times Forum and the Tampa Convention Center a unified, walkable waterfront. Add the mythical downtown Tampa baseball stadium, and Buckhorn's vision would be complete.

But the mayor's vision would have to align with Vinik's vision. Vinik and his partners own 12 empty acres across from the Times Forum. The mayor has called it the ideal site for a baseball stadium. (Ideal funding has yet to be discovered, however.)

Does Vinik think that? His representatives do not comment on baseball or their plans for that land. Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan has spent months asking Vinik and his people to consider baseball as they make those plans.

But before the bay area can run wild with speculation, Swindal said, wait for step one.

"I don't like to celebrate early, or prematurely," he said. "Let's get this deal closed."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at (813) 226-3404, thalji@tampabay.com or @jthalji on Twitter.

Speculation abounds in wake of port's Channelside purchase 09/11/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 11, 2013 11:28pm]

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