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Muvico may close BayWalk theater

The Muvico at BayWalk recently added a $1.5-million IMAX projection system, but movie ticket sales have decreased 15 percent over the past two years, the owner says. Mayor Rick Baker urged patience from Muvico and city residents.

DIRK SHADD | Times (2007)

The Muvico at BayWalk recently added a $1.5-million IMAX projection system, but movie ticket sales have decreased 15 percent over the past two years, the owner says. Mayor Rick Baker urged patience from Muvico and city residents.

ST. PETERSBURG — Muvico is considering closing its 20-screen movie theater at BayWalk, its CEO said Friday, a signal that the entertainment complex's financial woes may only get worse.

Muvico CEO Michael F. Whalen Jr. said he has not heard from city officials or BayWalk owner Fred Bullard Jr. since the troubled downtown complex fell into foreclosure proceedings last month.

Expressing Muvico's frustration, Whalen blamed both for creating a situation where BayWalk appears doomed.

"We may just close," Whalen said. "No one wants to support BayWalk at this point. No one wants to step up, including the owner and including the city."

Muvico recently added a $1.5-million IMAX projection system. But while the Tampa Bay area has seen movie ticket sales increase 3 percent over the past two years, Whalen said, sales at BayWalk have decreased 15 percent.

Whalen said no decision about the fate of the theater has been made, nor is there a deadline to make one. For now, the theater and the stores in BayWalk remain open.

Muvico is one of the last attractions at the downtown St. Petersburg anchor. The Fort Lauderdale movie chain owns the theater while Bullard controls the half-vacant retail and restaurant complex next door.

Were it to close, a large part of south Pinellas County would be without a major movie theater. The nearest one in the area would be Regal Park Place Stadium 16 in Pinellas Park.

Muvico also is contemplating legal action against Bullard.

"It's a really sad situation for the people of St. Petersburg," Whalen said. "When we opened that theater five or six years ago, there was nothing downtown. Now, flash forward, downtown St. Petersburg has gotten a lot better, and this has gotten worse. There's a disconnect somewhere."

Bullard, who took over the entertainment complex from the Sembler Co. in September, was traveling and could not be reached for comment, his assistant said Friday.

If Muvico did shut down, the situation at BayWalk likely would turn from bad to disastrous.

Bullard initially pledged to invest heavily in renovations and improvements in the 8-year-old complex. But less than a month after taking control, Bullard began refusing to make monthly mortgage payments of about $120,000 after he said negotiations to refinance the mortgage broke down.

Wells Fargo Bank filed suit in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court in November, saying Bullard owes $14.46-million. The bank is asking a judge to sell the BayWalk site at public auction.

Mayor Rick Baker on Friday urged patience from Muvico and city residents. He said the city has reached out to the movie operator in the past and will do so again.

"BayWalk has been a success," Baker said. "But it's been eight years now, and they do need a remake of the complex at this point. Ultimately that will happen. Whoever ends up owning it, however it winds up proceeding, it's a valuable property in the midst of a booming downtown."

Muvico, which operates 259 screens in 14 locations in Florida, Maryland, Illinois and Tennessee, says BayWalk's owners erred by taking what was designed as a top-end retail and restaurant complex and letting it devolve into something much less.

The city, meanwhile, never adequately provided for security, in particular along the walk between the complex and its parking garage one block south, Whalen said. It also bizarrely let BayWalk become the city's de facto protest location.

"We feel irrelevant," Whalen said. "People just don't care. And that's fine. We have other options, too."

Aaron Sharockman can be reached at asharockman@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2273.

Muvico may close BayWalk theater 12/06/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 10, 2008 5:38pm]
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