Until the terms are nailed down, it's impossible to judge whether a developer's bid to take over Channelside Bay Plaza is fair to taxpayers and promising for downtown Tampa. But the concept sketched out last week includes key elements that are essential for reviving the waterfront retail and entertainment complex. The Tampa Port Authority, which must approve any deal, should ensure that the package is financially sound and contributes long term to the development of the entire Channel District.
Real estate investors Punit Shah and Santosh Govindaraju announced that their new joint venture, Liberty Channelside LLC, has signed an agreement to purchase Channelside's lease from the Irish Bank Resolution Corp., which foreclosed on the property in 2010 after the former leaseholder defaulted on a $27 million loan. As the owner of the land under Channelside, the Port Authority has veto power over any deal. Its governing board may take up the proposal at its May 21 meeting.
Assigning the lease to the investors group has immediate benefits. It takes the operation of Channelside out of legal limbo, puts it in local hands and clears the way for millions of dollars in capital upgrades to the well-worn facility. The business plan calls for a new tenant mix that could freshen Channelside with new office space, restaurants and shops and make it more of an all-hours destination. And the new management would market the complex as part of a dynamic environment taking shape in the downtown core. All of these moves build the tax base, bolster the city's investment in parking garages and mass transit, and add to the vibrancy of everyday life that will help Tampa grow.
But the board needs to vet the terms to ensure the deal is fair and that Liberty Channelside is the right fit. The expected budget for capital improvements to the facility needs to be more precise than a range between $3 million and $7 million. The developers need to put concrete assurances behind their pledge to maintain a "significant" budget for repairs and maintenance. A request that the port contribute $1 million toward an overhead pedestrian bridge connecting Channelside to its parking garage seems high, especially considering a request that the lease run for 40 years with renewals for up to 40 more. The group also wants the port to look at modifying requirements for on-site security by putting a police or sheriff's substation on the property. These provisions could add substantially over time to the public costs of the lease, and the port board should not give away the farm in exchange for hiring stable management.
Still, the developers have local ties, a history in Tampa and a vested interest in strengthening downtown. They make a point of saying that Channelside must be transformed in ways that benefit the surrounding neighborhoods. These are solid assurances at the outset. The port authority needs to negotiate hard on the details, for the Channel District is valuable property. But it is promising news that an offer to break the stalemate over Channelside is up for public discussion.