After two years of not-so-benign neglect, prospects are brightening for the nearly empty BayWalk entertainment complex that helped trigger the revival of downtown St. Petersburg a decade ago. BayWalk's purchase by mortgage executive and music producer Bill Edwards puts the signature development back in local hands, and his initial signals are encouraging, even if his specific intentions are vague. While Beach Drive and other portions of downtown are doing well, its important for the city's long-term vitality — and to taxpayers — that BayWalk again become an attractive commercial hub.
BayWalk is not just another private downtown property in need of tenants. Over the years the city spent roughly $20 million to help build and support the complex and its parking garage. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in parking revenue has been forgiven. Portions of the public sidewalk along Second Avenue N were vacated and given to BayWalk's former owners, who insisted it was needed to better control crowds and protestors who once impeded visitors to the complex. And two years ago the city spent about $700,000 to improve security in the parking garage, spruce up public areas and create well-marked pedestrian links between BayWalk and Beach Drive.
The Sembler Co. and Fred Bullard originally built BayWalk largely as a civic endeavor, an investment in their hometown when the city desperately needed a boost and a new downtown attraction. Edwards is a private investor, but the public has a greater stake in this particular piece of private property given the public investment over the years and its high profile. Edwards successfully lobbied for his new contract to manage and operate the city-owned Mahaffey Theater as a civic commitment that also could benefit him financially. He should approach BayWalk in that same spirit.
While managing commercial property is not among Edwards' most visible skills, he is bound to be more attentive than the most recent owners. After a successful run under the Sembler ownership, the retail portion of the complex was sold and then went through foreclosure. CW Capital Asset Management took over BayWalk in 2009 and failed to deliver on promise after promise as tenants fled and the property deteriorated. Some uncertainties already have been cleared up by the change of ownership. The vacated sidewalk will remain in BayWalk's control. And the sale to Edwards has been blessed by Muvico, which separately controls the city's only movie complex. The movie complex is an important entertainment outlet for St. Petersburg, and Edwards should ensure it remains a key piece of his BayWalk plans.
Downtown St. Petersburg has come a long way since BayWalk opened in 2000 and helped trigger a revival. Edwards is confident that the complex can be redeveloped to create jobs and become a major draw again. His ownership offers a hopeful way forward, and it is important to the city that BayWalk again becomes a symbol of downtown's success rather than a near-empty reminder of a tough economy.