ST. PETERSBURG — It's an anniversary members of St. Petersburg's City Council aren't celebrating.
One year ago today — in one of the most controversial votes in recent city history — council members narrowly approved ceding the public sidewalk in front of BayWalk to rid it of the protesters and loitering teens who were blamed for the near dormancy of the shopping and entertainment complex.
But with the complex about 80 percent vacant, the council members who sided with BayWalk say they are frustrated.
"The BayWalk folks all said that the sidewalk was the stumbling block and if we took care of that, they'd get all these tenants to sign,' " said Bill Dudley, whose brother scuffled with a protester at the meeting. "We stuck our necks out for them, and I'm very disappointed because it looks like the leasing company doesn't have a clue to what's going on."
While Dudley, Jim Kennedy, Karl Nurse, Herb Polson and then-council member Jamie Bennett said they don't regret their votes, they did say they felt misled by BayWalk representatives.
"They were pretty blunt in arguing that they had tenants on the line who wouldn't sign if they didn't get the sidewalk issue fixed," Nurse said. "I'm pretty surprised we don't have tenants yet."
"When I voted, I thought, give it six months or so, and they'll have tenants, or at least a plan," Kennedy said. "I'm disappointed. There's nothing."
BayWalk has signed one tenant, the furniture store hermanHome, since the vote, but seven other tenants have left. The atmosphere of the outdoor mall is eerie, especially during the day when there's little sign of life. At night, BayWalk picks up a bit with people attending the last remaining anchor, Muvico Theaters.
When the complex opened in 2000, it teemed with visitors to its upscale shops, nightclubs and restaurants. At the time, no one bemoaned the $20 million in taxpayer money that helped finance it.
Over time, however, BayWalk's image took a hit as a series of well-publicized incidents involving protesters and violence coincided with a drop in business. The original developer, Sembler Co., sold controlling interest to BayWalk partner Fred Bullard in 2008. Foreclosure proceedings soon followed.
A group of investors, CW Capital Asset Management, was in charge of the loan on Well Fargo's behalf and took ownership of the complex in 2009. Its representatives lobbied the City Council that year to privatize the entrance in front of BayWalk so protesters, homeless people and unwanted teens could be shooed away.
The move drew objections from people like Rev. Bruce Wright, who represents homeless groups. He said the city's most vulnerable people were just scapegoats. On Thursday, he said he wasn't surprised that BayWalk's problems remain.
"The real problem is the economy and mismanagement of the complex," Wright said.
BayWalk's leasing and property management representatives have continually urged patience since the vote, saying that it takes time to sign up the right mix of tenants that will attract consumers to support the complex.
They released a statement on Thursday: "During the past year we have entered into serious negotiations with several prospective anchor tenants. Because of the current economic climate, and specifically the shortage of credit available for new restaurant ventures, these prospects are faced with unique challenges that have made it extremely difficult to finalize commitments."
Still, BayWalk won't disclose anything specific, which makes the wait more frustrating.
"If they could do a better job of communicating, that would lighten the load a bit," Dudley said. "When they don't tell us anything, we start assuming the worst. If it's the economy, why is Beach Drive booming? Either the business model is terrible or the rent is too high."
Bennett said an overhaul might be needed.
"Smart people have to get together and find out what to do about BayWalk," he said. "It's probably somewhat dated. Somebody is going to have to change the structure and reinvent it in a way that will draw people."
Nurse said the city should get involved "pretty darn soon" if the project doesn't announce new tenants. He said the city could be a facilitator in getting new tenants to the table.
For now, Mayor Bill Foster, who didn't take office until January, is giving BayWalk more time. In August, he flew to North Carolina to meet with Bar Management, an operator of nightclubs in a Charlotte complex that resembles BayWalk.
"I'm not going to make a big deal out this," said Foster, who last month said it would be politically unpalatable for BayWalk not to sign any new tenants by today. "Four weeks from now, I don't know if that's the case."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or [email protected]