This week's auction for Channelside Bay Plaza marks a pivotal moment for downtown Tampa. Having the right owner is key for the struggling retail center to be reborn as a magnet for growth in the Channel District. The Tampa Port Authority, which is bidding for Channelside, has acted responsibly in trying to steer this complex into responsible hands, and it needs to continue underscoring the public interest in finding stable, civic-minded owners.
The auction comes after a U.S. bankruptcy judge ordered in February that liquidators for the retail center "kick the tires" on Channelside in an effort to win higher bids for the waterfront complex on downtown's east side. That order followed a failed effort by the port, which owns the land under Channelside, to buy the complex outright from the Irish Bank Resolution Corp., which foreclosed on the property in 2010.
The port's previous bid and its intention to pursue Channelside at Wednesday's auction are both well-directed efforts to bring this strategic property under single, responsible ownership and local control. Channelside is a public asset that should be acting as a catalyst for new residential and business growth in the Channel District instead of flailing as a largely vacant retail center that cannot compete with Ybor City, the malls or South Tampa's SoHo entertainment district.
The next owner needs deep pockets; a new consultant's report shows that Channelside needs millions in upgrades at its existing facility for basics such as roofing, air conditioning and outdoor escalators. Those costs could pale in comparison to the expense of knocking down the existing building to open up Channelside to the waterfront and streetside entryway, a step that's needed to give the center fresh appeal in the competitive retail and dining market. The new owner should recognize how Channelside fits into the fabric and development of the waterfront. And it must offer an experience that creates a unique destination in downtown Tampa.
The disclosure over the weekend that Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik entered the bidding is encouraging. A company Vinik controls bid $7.1 million for Channelside, the highest offer so far. Vinik's ownership of the hockey franchise, his leasehold on the Tampa Bay Times Forum and his assembly of 23 acres in the channel district makes him uniquely suited to bring Channelside into a master plan for the area.
The port's active interest has driven negotiations in the right direction. It needs to ensure now that Channelside has the right owner, not simply a new one. And the bank needs to step it up; Channelside may be a blip on the radar screen for the Irish bank, but it's a vital asset here and the bank should bring an orderly end to the ownership saga. Only then can Channelside begin to create a new vision, a new look and a new niche in the market, and only then can the port get back to its primary business.