ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Bill Foster took a commercial flight to North Carolina last month to dine and go clubbing at EpiCentre, an upscale dining, entertainment and shopping complex in downtown Charlotte.
Not known for tripping the light fantastic, Foster mingled after midnight with partygoers at a swank nightclub, alone on an overnight trip that cost taxpayers $581 in travel expenses.
It wasn't for pleasure that Foster was there on a Friday night, he said, but business — specifically, a mission to save BayWalk.
"Within the next couple of weeks, people will know whether or not my trip was successful," he said.
As the one-year anniversary of the City Council's decision to cede the public sidewalk in front of BayWalk approaches, the complex is more desolate than ever.
The Oct. 15 vote was one of the most controversial in recent city history. BayWalk's property and leasing managers said they couldn't sign new tenants with protesters and teens roaming the sidewalk. They needed to take control of it to sign up new tenants, they said.
Since then, seven more tenants have left.
Sunglass Hut is moving out this week. Icing, a women's accessories store, moved out this summer. Only one tenant, a furniture store, has signed during the same period. The complex is about 90 percent vacant.
BayWalk's management said that it hoped to have new tenants by now, but, as of yet, no announcements have been made.
Since becoming mayor, Foster has affirmed the city's support of BayWalk. In the past year, the city has spent almost $300,000 to improve security and lighting at the promenade leading to BayWalk and the Midcore garage at First Avenue N that's used by complex patrons. The more vibrant the complex is, the thinking goes, the more money the city garage will produce.
But Foster and the City Council have acknowledged that their patience is waning. They say it would be politically unpalatable for the anniversary of the vote to pass without having new tenants signed.
Foster won't reveal much about his trip. He won't say who asked him to go and he says he won't disclose the names of the clubs and restaurants he visited. He won't say who hosted him and won't even fully describe the purpose of his visit.
"I was an ambassador of the city," Foster said.
BayWalk's leasing manager Curtis Rorebeck and property manager Tom McGeachy didn't return phone calls seeking comment.
Mainly, Foster said, he went to look. He describes EpiCentre as a "three-story BayWalk." The night he was there, he said, it was like the BayWalk of old, with teeming crowds of young and old people. After eating at an unnamed restaurant, he went back to his hotel, he said. He wouldn't name it, and an expense report filed with the city doesn't name the hotel. He took a nap and woke after midnight to go to a club that he was told would be hopping.
"Then at about 12:30 a.m., I saw a vibrancy at this complex that I thought would be good for St. Pete," Foster said. "It's different than what's on Beach Drive.
"There's one place that's really cool," he said, without naming it.
The tagline of EpiCentre is "Where Charlotte's Nightlife Begins." Its website describes it as "the Southeast's hub for dining, entertainment, recreation, nightlife and hospitality. Featuring an innovative design and accommodating layout, EpiCentre is home to over three dozen unique concepts encompassing over half a million square feet."
The property is owned by the Ghazi Company. Creative director Emily Hudgens said Foster's visit wasn't coordinated through the company.
The majority of the tenants are owned and operated by Bar Management Group, Hudgens said. Representatives with that company couldn't be reached. It owns Suite, an "exclusive night club and lounge, featuring an uncommonly upscale ambiance and breathtaking skyline views"; Whisky River, a country-western bar owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr. that has DJs, bikini contests and a mechanical bull; and BlackFinn American Saloon, dubbed by the website as a "modern day adaptation of a big-city saloon."
Foster said he was tight-lipped because he said he isn't BayWalk's leasing agent. But he did say he went to see how BayWalk could make it work.
But EpiCentre hasn't necessarily figured it out, either. On Sept. 16, more than a month after Foster's visit, Regions Bank sued EpiCentre developers for more than $88 million, alleging that they defaulted on a loan and spent it in questionable ways. Before Foster's fact-finding mission, in fact, the bank actually had started foreclosure proceedings.
Developer Afshin Ghazi has put the complex in bankruptcy protection and sued Regions, alleging that the bank had agreed to reduce payment on the loan by $40 million, according to the Charlotte Business Journal.
Ghazi told the Charlotte Observer in an e-mail that the lawsuit was "standard banking practice" and that the bank's claims were "without merit."
Foster said he knew about the problems with the complex, but that doesn't detract from the success of the businesses.
"Yes, I talked to them about the place being in bankruptcy," Foster said. "But heck, so is ours. It has no bearing on the success of the enterprises that I visited."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8037.