ST. PETERSBURG — Suzin Moon was a model tenant at BayWalk.
She paid her entire rent on time when other shopkeepers had theirs reduced or went months without paying. Her salon, LoLaJane's Beauty Lounge, was doing well in a tough economy. And she wanted to move to a bigger space within the nearly vacant shopping and entertainment complex.
So why is Moon's salon now on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street N?
"For a place that's 80 percent vacant, I thought it was strange that they didn't want to keep us," said Moon, whose salon closed last month in BayWalk. "I'm not exactly sure what their plan is."
It's the latest confusing episode in how downtown's linchpin development has been managed since October. That's when the City Council, in one of the most controversial votes in recent years, ceded a public sidewalk over to BayWalk's control.
At the time, BayWalk's property managers said they needed control so they could keep the complex free of protesters, who they said scared away patrons. They claimed they had at least three tenants who were ready to sign, and the sidewalk was the only thing holding up the deals.
But with the departure of Moon's salon, that's four tenants that have left the complex since the Oct. 15 vote. Only one tenant, hermanHome, a furniture store, has opened. As winter turns to spring, pressure is mounting for BayWalk to announce some major tenants to validate the vote.
"It's very frustrating for me to explain to my constituents why we vacated a sidewalk when the three tenants they said were ready to sign still aren't there," said City Council Chairwoman Leslie Curran, who voted against vacating the sidewalk. "That was five months ago."
Last week, the lack of tenants convinced Curran to cancel an update report that BayWalk managers were scheduled to give the City Council on Thursday. Curran said it was pointless to have another report filled with only generalities and promises.
Mayor Bill Foster told her the project was on the verge of some significant announcements. So Curran pushed the report back to April 15, which just happens to be exactly six months since the vote.
"I hope they have a tenant by then," Curran said. "One solid tenant that we can build on. Either way, they're giving the report then."
Foster and Rick Mussett, the senior administrator of city development, said they believe BayWalk is close to the long-awaited breakthrough.
"We were advised by the BayWalk reps that they were close to finalizing two deals, one of which would be significant," Mussett said. "They've got a lot of leads, but they've got to close the deals."
BayWalk's leasing agent, Curtis Rorebeck, was mostly mum about what those deals were. He confirmed that Splitsville, the bowling and dining lounge that's in Tampa's Channelside complex, is still in talks about opening in BayWalk. Rorebeck's leasing firm, Equity Inc., represents the restaurant nationally, a possible conflict that Rorebeck says he has fully disclosed to all parties.
Another restaurant, Salt Rock Grill in Indian Rocks Beach, was involved in discussions, but is no longer, Rorebeck said.
He said Curran's decision to delay the update report was helpful.
"It's fair to say that if we can make a major announcement at the meeting, that would make the presentation an easier one," Rorebeck said. "People are anxious, they want us to make an announcement. I understand that. But I'm conservative when making announcements. I've seen what happens when people make an announcement and it doesn't come to fruition. That won't happen here."
He said the departure of Moon's salon was regrettable, but it couldn't be helped. He said she told him she had a better deal that BayWalk simply couldn't match.
Not so, Moon said. She said she never told Rorebeck she had a better deal, because at the time of the negotiations, she didn't. It was only until he didn't respond to her offer, and then rebuffed it, that she found a new place. She says she's paying half the rent she was at BayWalk.
"They definitely want restaurants," Moon said. "So maybe it's a matter of us not knowing what their plan is."
Foster said he's willing, for now, to give BayWalk the benefit of the doubt in turning away a tenant like Moon who was willing and able to pay rent.
"It's all about tenant mix and what (BayWalk) hopes to accomplish," Foster said. "I can only surmise that those who have departed of late don't fall within the desired tenant mix."
Rorebeck said for now, it's a matter of proving to the public that all the talk of tenants isn't just talk.
"Our goal is to land two large anchor restaurants," he said. "If we're sitting here in the summer and fall and we still don't have any restaurant openings, then that would be a bad thing."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or [email protected]