Opened to great fanfare in 2000, BayWalk, with its six restaurants and more than a dozen stores, was a great success. But eight years later, the developer says business is slumping, the tenant list is shrinking and the once-sleepy downtown that BayWalk helped to revive is evolving. Amid the uncertainties, Sembler Co. executive chairman Craig Sher says that one thing is clear: BayWalk needs a reboot.
"It was one of the agents of change in turning the corner of this town's image from green benches and shuffleboard. People mention BayWalk in the top three things that make it a good town," Sher said. "But properties cycle. It's time for the next cycle."
For Sembler, which earned its reputation developing suburban shopping centers filled with big-box stores like Target and Home Depot, BayWalk was among the company's first ventures into urban entertainment centers.
A relatively new phenomenon, these centers — a mix of tourist stores, apparel and gift shops, movie theaters and a large contingent of casual restaurants and bars — carry a heavy risk for developers because of tenant turnover, economic cycles and changing tastes.
Hoping to shed the complex from its robust portfolio, Sembler put BayWalk up for sale last year. Company officials have remained tight-lipped on the price. Sher said that no matter who takes the reins, reinvention is a priority as customers tire of what's being offered there.
Two of the main courtyard's stores remain vacant, and more prominent tenants are rumored to be leaving. Sher said storefront leases will be up for a renewal in a few years and that corporate parents of those stores have already begun evaluating whether they should keep businesses at BayWalk. Some stores are behind on rent, Sher said.
Then there's the matter of public perception.
The complex suffered public relations disasters starting with a series of January 2005 brawls. Seventeen people, including seven juveniles, were arrested on charges ranging from disorderly conduct to battery on a law enforcement officer. In February 2007, a music speaker fell 20 feet onto the head of a 3-year-old boy. On Christmas Day 2007, shots were fired after brawls were reported.
"Some of the negative things that have happened at BayWalk have affected business there," said Thomas Thornton, a regional manager at TooJay's Gourmet Deli, one of the original tenants. "But I don't see any reason why anyone wouldn't feel safe down there."
Thornton denied rumors that the deli is leaving the complex, saying: "We are trying to be a viable part of that business in St. Pete. We want to remain there."
Meanwhile, downtown keeps evolving. Condos are sprouting across the city, bringing with them thousands of square feet of retail space. Clubs and restaurants have given the city new cachet. Nearby, the Fourth Street corridor has evolved into restaurant row.
With roughly 100,000 square feet of new retail space within a few blocks of BayWalk, developers like John Hamilton see potential. Starting with a boutique pet supply store at Fourth Avenue NE and Bay Street, and followed by two new restaurants anchoring the north and south ends of swanky 400 Beach Drive, Hamilton and his associates hope to bolster the urban living experience.
"I believe in the city and where it's going," said Hamilton, 50, a St. Petersburg native. "Everything that I've seen, current market conditions aside, it's a great place to be and a great place for retail."
BayWalk store owners say an influx of new retailers shouldn't spell the end of BayWalk. It could be the beginning, said Amy Bromley, owner of the furniture and lifestyle store Being.
"It doesn't need to be the death rattle," she said. "We just need to get new tenants."
The complex has already undergone several changes. Managers at Banbu recently ditched the do-it-yourself hibachi-style kitchen in favor of a nightclub.
Before that, a management shakeup turned the neighboring Dan Marino's Town Tavern into Grille 121.
And just this week, Muvico and the Pier Aquarium announced a potential partnership that would dramatically change BayWalk's face. Organizers in that deal, with its promise of a high-tech marine science museum and scaled-down movie theater, say the repackaging would bring back the local customers.
That's the shot in the arm BayWalk needs, Bromley said.
"We need to get the locals back," she said. "There's so much waiting to happen here."
Casey Cora can be reached at (813) 226-3386 or at email@example.com.