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As Baywalk sits empty, major tenant Muvico blasts complex's neglect

ST. PETERSBURG — For months, the operators of BayWalk have weathered criticism about why they aren't filling up downtown's desolate retail complex with the tenants it needs to survive.

Now they are getting blasted by the last remaining anchor tenant, Muvico Theaters, for not maintaining the complex well enough to encourage new tenants or entice customers to visit remaining attractions.

Neil Bretan, CEO of Muvico Theaters, said he visited BayWalk two weeks ago and didn't like what he saw. He said it needs a new paint job, new lights and signs, and new escalators.

"I've never seen an escalator rot," Bretan said. "The gaskets seem to be disintegrating. Wind-blown debris had gathered on it. It's got to be more inviting than that. You need curb appeal."

From 2004 to 2009, Muvico's attendance at BayWalk has dropped by more than 50 percent. By comparison, attendance is down by an average of 2 percent at the chain's other eight theaters.

"While a lot of this is product driven, Hollywood's not to blame for this kind of decline," Bretan said. "We're anxious to get neighbors. Anything that generates traffic would be welcome. But they need to pick up a paint brush and show that they're doing something with the property so they keep prospective tenants interested."

The company that operates BayWalk for owner CW Capital says it plans on spending $1.5 million to renovate the common areas of the complex and $4.5 million on repairs for tenant space. When the City Council approved ceding a public sidewalk to BayWalk in October, the renovations were promised to follow.

But with the one-year anniversary of that controversial vote three months away, the fixes haven't been made. And they won't be done until tenants are signed, said Thomas McGeachy, the managing principal of Cimenelli Real Estate Services of Florida.

"From a public perception, I'm sure it would create excitement to go ahead with improvements," McGeachy said. "From a practical standpoint, we need to wait until the tenants are signed."

McGeachy said he's sympathetic to the concerns of BayWalk's remaining tenants.

"There's no question that the vacancy in BayWalk impacts their sales," he said.

But new tenants might want a say in the renovations that will take place. Color schemes, the width and direction of the new escalators, the intensity of the lighting, all could be influenced by what types of tenants move in, McGeachy said.

"As eager as we are to get started, it's prudent for us to know the tenant mix before we go ahead with improvements," he said.

Only one tenant, a furniture store, has been signed since the Oct. 15 council vote. Meanwhile, five tenants have left.

Now about 80 percent empty, the complex has drawn so much concern that McGeachy and the owner's leasing agent, Curtis Rorebeck, had to assure council members in April that the project was close to signing major tenants.

But three months later, no new announcements have been made.

Muvico and the other tenants aren't the only ones awaiting BayWalk repairs. In the past year, the city has spent almost $300,000 to improve security and lighting at the promenade leading to BayWalk and the Mid Core garage at First Avenue N that's used by complex patrons.

The city is collecting less money in the Mid Core garage because of BayWalk's drop in attendance. According to the city's audit, there were 500,000 daily users of the garage in 2006. Last year, the number of users dropped by more than half, to 245,000.

"It's safe to say that a vibrant and active BayWalk is in the best interest of the city's parking operations," said Kevin Dunn, the city's managing director of development coordination.

McGeachy said, again, that BayWalk is on the verge of a major announcement. Again, he would not name names or provide an estimate of when the announcement would be made.

"I wish I could say more," he said.

Mayor Bill Foster did say that Splitsville, a dinner lounge with bowling, has signed a letter of intent — meaning it has agreed to business terms but has not signed a lease. Representatives from Splitsville did not return phone calls. McGeachy would not confirm whether Splitsville had signed a letter of intent.

It is a bad market for retail, and St. Petersburg's downtown market is hardly robust. According to the International Council of Shopping Centers, downtown St. Petersburg last year offered some of the lowest rental rates in Tampa Bay, a sure sign of low demand.

Dunn said he gets regular updates on prospective tenants at BayWalk and is pleased with what he's hearing.

"I'm encouraged they have this level of interest," Dunn said. "It defies the marketplace."

Times staff writer Mark Albright contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

.Fast facts

Movie attendance

As BayWalk has struggled, so has its main tenant, Muvico Theaters. Since 2004, attendance has dropped by 50 percent.

2004: 1.1 million

2005: 1 million

2006: 800,000

2007: 735,000

2008: 590,000

2009: 516,000

Source: Muvico Theaters

As Baywalk sits empty, major tenant Muvico blasts complex's neglect 07/29/10 [Last modified: Thursday, July 29, 2010 10:12pm]
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