BayWalk theater's request to extend free parking seems reasonable

BayWalk debuted in 2000, grew quiet in recent years, and now has new promise. Muvico, independent of BayWalk, has been patient.

LARA CERRI | Times (2009)

BayWalk debuted in 2000, grew quiet in recent years, and now has new promise. Muvico, independent of BayWalk, has been patient.

Is BayWalk's Muvico theater treading water?

That is one reason given in a recent request by a Muvico official for the city to extend the temporary parking validation program at BayWalk.

The program, approved nearly a year ago, is intended to assist Muvico while BayWalk gets a makeover. It provides up to 125,000 free parking validations annually.

A city report shows that extending the program for 16 months — through September 2013 — will include a $160,000 loss of revenue. Staff reports show the city's parking revenue fund expects to bring in $1.5 million in parking fees by the end of this September.

The request, which goes before the City Council on Thursday, seeks an extension of the program with a limit of 160,000 parking validations.

The program could be terminated early if BayWalk:

• Completes construction and opens to the public.

• Reaches 50 percent occupancy.

• Has 50,000 validations in a three-month period.

The current agreement requires Muvico to have at least 15 theaters open daily, including the IMAX theater and four art theaters. Under the new agreement, Muvico is asking to reduce the requirements by one, to 14 theaters daily.

BayWalk, once the crown jewel of downtown St. Petersburg, has always tugged at the heartstrings — and purse strings — of the city.

Taxpayers spent nearly $20 million to help build the complex and its parking garage. Nearly three years ago the city spent almost $700,000 for improvements to public areas, walkways and security in the garage.

Despite its status as a private business, for years BayWalk was considered the public square, where many protests — mostly unrelated to the BayWalk — have been held.

Since Loan Ranger Acquisitions, a company owned by mortgage executive Bill Edwards, bought the complex for $5 million, there has been much anticipation of what will emerge from the rubble as renovations continue.

Of even greater concern is the tenant list.

As residents wait for BayWalk's new owners to reload and relaunch, the anchor of the entertainment complex has seen its traffic dwindle.

Muvico, which is independent of BayWalk, has been a patient neighbor as the entertainment complex transitions.

"Given the circumstances, Muvico respectfully requests the city to extend the existing parking validation program until Sept. 30, 2013,'' Neil F. Bretan, chief executive officer of Muvico Theaters, wrote in a May 17 letter.

"We are confident that doing so would allow Muvico to 'tread water' during the development, construction and lease-up of the all-new BayWalk."

Muvico, one of the few reasons to visit the complex, has seen its numbers plummet. At the height of its success, the theater's attendance topped 1 million visitors a year. But since 2004, when the theater had 1.1 million visitors, attendance has dropped by 50 percent. Since 2009, attendance has hovered around 516,000, according to Muvico officials.

Considering the millions taxpayers have spent on BayWalk, this request seems paltry, and is one of the few times that taxpayers stand to benefit directly, albeit with free parking, from a decision by the council.

At some point the city must draw the line and stop pouring money into the black hole that is BayWalk. A sidewalk and millions of taxpayer dollars is enough.

Here's hoping Edwards and his team will transform the complex to a retail hub that a city of more than 200,000 residents deserves.

Sandra J. Gadsden can be reached at sgadsden@tampabay.com or at (727) 893-8874.

BayWalk theater's request to extend free parking seems reasonable 06/04/12 [Last modified: Monday, June 4, 2012 1:43pm]

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