Jeff Vinik's apparent winning bid Wednesday for Channelside Bay Plaza hopefully marks a new chapter for downtown Tampa's beleaguered outdoor mall. Though the sale is not yet complete, the terms should satisfy the federal bankruptcy judge overseeing the case four years after the building's owners, the Irish Bank Resolution Corp., foreclosed on the property. Vinik's offer should prompt rival bidder Liberty Channelside to move on and not torpedo the sale with further litigation.
The Tampa Bay Lightning owner's offer of $7.1 million at Wednesday's auction in New York was the "highest and best," court records show. Vinik also provided a $10 million letter of credit as assurance that he has the means to upgrade the struggling and worn facility.
The vision Vinik's development group sketched out this week was for a restaurant-retail-hotel mix at Channelside and an adjacent 23 acres Vinik owns. Channelside would become a gathering place for downtown Tampa's hottest new neighborhood, tying together the nearby Tampa Bay Times Forum and Florida Aquarium and giving both downtown residents and visitors a signature experience. With his leasehold on the Forum as well, Vinik could master-plan the area with a unifying theme, and his broad financial stake in the area would give him every incentive to build a quality development.
These are the tangible and intangible benefits the courts should recognize with Vinik's bid. Though the Tampa Port Authority, which owns the land under Channelside, submitted a bid too, that was insurance against Channelside going to the wrong bidder. The port has no experience or interest in running an entertainment operation, but it has a broad public interest in ensuring that the public's stake in Channelside is protected with the right owner. The port board has embraced Vinik's proposal and both sides have the makings of a productive partnership. The terms appear fair for creditors and ideal for finally ending any ownership role for the Irish bank, the main issue in the bankruptcy proceeding.
The bid is expected to be heard July 15 in bankruptcy court. The judge should recognize the adequacy of Vinik's bid, his record and interest in following through with improvements, the value of sole ownership and local control and the business sense it makes to end this litigation. With the ownership issues resolved, Vinik can work on bringing the destination back. The city can focus on larger improvements that build on the Channel District's commercial base. And the port can return to its core business of being a commercial lifeline for millions across Central Florida.
Liberty Channelside will make no friends by pursuing a legal strategy that only further delays resolution and erodes the chance that Channelside lives up to its potential. It is hard to imagine the port and Liberty having a functional relationship, and now would be a graceful time for this rival to go away. It's one thing if Vinik's offer cannot stand on its own in court, but it's another for the court to be used in a way that only hurts the public's interest. The port should be a partner in the weeks ahead and do everything it can to see this exciting offer succeed.