ST. PETERSBURG — Back in October, BayWalk managers said they wouldn't get sorely needed tenants for the flagging shopping and entertainment complex unless the city ceded control of the sidewalk in front of the entrance.
"If the vacation (of the sidewalk) is not approved, we really don't know what the future of BayWalk will be," said Thomas McGeachy of Ciminelli Real Estate Services, BayWalk's property manager.
Yet four months after City Council members complied with BayWalk's request — in one of the most controversial votes in recent city history, complete with fisticuffs — the complex is 80 percent vacant. Only one tenant, a furniture store, has moved in since the Oct. 15 vote.
McGeachy said several prospects are on the verge of closing deals, and that in the next two months some high-profile restaurants will sign lease agreements. The complex will then embark on $1.5 million in renovations, including a paint job, replacing the escalators, installing new signs and lights, and refurbishing the restrooms.
But for some, including Mayor Bill Foster, the lack of new tenants falls short of BayWalk's promise that banishing protesters and lingering teens from the entrance would reverse the complex's decline.
"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed," Foster said. "This is an urgent matter for the city, and I would hope that those making the leasing decisions at BayWalk have the same sense of urgency."
Council Chairman Leslie Curran, who voted against the sidewalk vacation, was even more blunt. She said BayWalk's property managers overstated the effect the sidewalk had on the project.
"We were told that they had a long list of tenants waiting for the sidewalk to be vacated," Curran said. "Well, the sidewalk was vacated. Where are they? I am quite concerned."
The project's leasing agent, Curtis Rorebeck, urged patience. He said while it may appear that the sidewalk hasn't clinched new tenants, he said several ongoing prospect negotiations wouldn't have been possible without it.
"We've probably hit the bottom as far as the vacancies," said Rorebeck, who works at Equity Inc. "It takes time, No. 1. But I feel good about our activity level and the people we are negotiating with. If the sidewalk issue hadn't been resolved, we don't have any prospects."
He and McGeachy insist the project is ready to turn the corner.
Already, security was beefed up at the Mid Core garage at First Avenue N that is used by BayWalk patrons. Since May, the city has spent $284,000 to improve security and lighting at the garage and the promenade connecting it to BayWalk.
Many people cited lack of security as a reason to stay away, McGeachy said.
And, BayWalk's newest resident, furniture store hermanHOME, seems happy.
"For us, it's going incredibly," said Ed Biggs, the store's lead designer. "We've made deliveries to all but one high-rise condo on Beach Drive. There's nothing wrong with business at BayWalk."
Muvico Theaters also is making improvements at its 20-screen complex, including adding two 3-D film projectors in time for the March 5 opening of Alice in Wonderland. It is also opening the Gallery, which will feature art and independent films and host art exhibits and lectures in four theaters. The venue will include a wine and beer bar, so only those 21 and older can attend.
"With all the improvements, we're spending up to $500,000," said Hal Cleveland, Muvico's new chief executive. "We would love to see additional tenants, and I think BayWalk is working diligently to find prospects in a tough economic environment."
The driver of the project will be the restaurants to occupy more than 35,000 square feet of space that is now mostly empty. McGeachy said BayWalk will stay away from chains and try to lure four local restaurants to anchor the complex.
Splitsville, a dinner lounge with bowling, is still in the running, Rorebeck said, but Z Grille dropped out.
Gary Grooms, co-owner of Z Grille, said BayWalk made a generous offer on rent, but getting money to open a restaurant was too difficult.
"We found that nobody would loan money," Grooms said.
Rorebeck said the bad economy isn't the problem in getting BayWalk filled up again.
"It just takes a while to get the right mix of tenants," Rorebeck said. "I wouldn't blame the market."
But for protesters like Chris Ernesto, an organizer for St. Pete for Peace, the persisting problems at BayWalk prove that October's City Council vote was a sideshow and a distraction.
"Most of us live here, so we're like everyone else, we don't want boarded-up stores," Ernesto said. "It's just that the U.S. economy has been in the worst tailspin in years. We were scapegoated. That sidewalk has been a red herring all along."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or email@example.com.