The Tampa Port Authority needs to resolve the future of the Channelside Bay Plaza retail and entertainment complex. Waiting for the Irish Bank Resolution Corp. to take the lead in finding a credible new operator for the outside mall is not a winning strategy. The port authority should negotiate to buy the Channelside buildings from the bank so it can take direct control over a valuable asset that is deteriorating and find a permanent owner itself.
The Tampa Bay Times' Jamal Thalji explained the port's dilemma in a story published Sunday. The crux is that while the port owns the land under Channelside, the bank owns the buildings. And while the bank has the authority to sell the lease, the port has veto power over any successor. The arrangement creates two layers of oversight and built-in conflicts between the bank and the port. The bank wants to recapture as much of the $27 million loan on the property as it can, while the port is looking for a qualified and deep-pocketed operator who can keep the complex maintained and thriving for the long haul. The port nixed a deal in May over concerns that a potential owner chosen by the bank would not make the necessary upgrades. The two sides have been at odds ever since.
The port is losing valuable time. The recovering economy and the growth in residential construction downtown present opportunities for Channelside to re-market itself and become a signature destination. The city has built new waterfront parks leading to the channel district, the port is building its cruise ship business, and new apartments and condominiums are bringing thousands of new people into the city center. Channelside should be an exciting place for tourists and residents alike and a public square for the growing channel district neighborhood.
Port commissioners have floated the idea of buying out the bank, but officials wonder about the price and note the port is not in the retail business. Channelside's most recent appraisal valued the property at $12 million, but port officials said the market value could be $18 million or higher.
The port needs an accurate estimate of Channelside's value. And it needs to put someone on a plane to Ireland to explore a deal with the bank. The bank has an interest in getting this property off its books. And the port has a clear interest in controlling the property outright. Taking over would not necessarily force the port to operate the retail center; it could hire a property manager to do the job. Managing property is nothing new for the port; the agency leases land to dozens of tenants in marine-related industries.
The current situation is unsustainable and not conducive to finding a viable operator of Channelside. And it prevents Tampa officials from making decisions locally about how the venue fits into the overall picture downtown. The port should explore buying out the bank and taking full control of Channelside. There are risks, but nobody wins by leaving an underperforming public asset in limbo.