St. Petersburg city officials are likely to be pressured to get the public's checkbook out this week when they meet with the operators of the movie theaters at BayWalk. The theaters are important to the vitality of the struggling entertainment complex and to downtown, and Muvico has threatened to close them unless the city helps provide a $1 million loan for improvements. But before the public makes another substantial investment, there should be an overall plan for reviving the theaters and the separately owned BayWalk retail complex.
When it opened in 2000, BayWalk played a key role in revitalizing downtown with its movie theaters, shops and restaurants. But as the rest of the area has thrived, the complex has experienced a series of setbacks that leave its future uncertain.
The retail portion was sold, went through foreclosure and has a new operator. Much of the restaurant and retail space is empty, and the theaters are seeing fewer visitors. Over time, questions about security and protests for various causes outside the complex also took their toll. In the last month, Muvico has demanded a loan, threatened to sue the city and suggested it could close the theaters after previously vowing to stay open. Those sorts of threats aren't helpful to forging a public-private partnership.
Nobody wants to see the downtown theaters close. If St. Petersburg can be home to a major league baseball team, it ought to at least have one movie complex. Mayor Rick Baker already was prepared to waive $214,000 in theater-related parking revenue over the next three years. The city also is moving forward with beefing up security and installing better lighting in the parking garage and walkways. Plans are under way to provide a more visible connection between BayWalk and bustling Beach Drive. And adding a police officer or two on horseback around the complex will provide a different look and more security.
But despite their separate ownership, the theaters and the rest of the retail complex have to be part of an overall revitalization plan. All sides need to come together and create a realistic vision that will draw shoppers and tourists back. That is going to be difficult in this economy, when retail stores and movie theaters across the country are struggling. But BayWalk is a signature downtown destination, and the right mix of restaurants, retail — and movies — can make it a popular spot again.
St. Petersburg taxpayers already have spent at least $20 million to help build and support BayWalk. It is reasonable to consider ways for the city to protect that investment as part of a comprehensive revitalization plan. That may wind up costing taxpayers more money — but now is not the time to write a check to a national theater company.