The Tampa Port Authority's decision to buy Channelside Bay Plaza marks a fresh start for the retail center and a breakthrough for downtown. The move restarts the clock on turning a struggling public property into a thriving destination, and it gives the city more control over how Tampa's channel district develops. Now the port needs to be as visionary in pairing Channelside with the right partner.
The port's governing board voted unanimously Tuesday to buy the retail complex from the Irish Bank Resolution Corp. The $5.75 million deal is a bargain, given that the Irish bank foreclosed on the property after its previous owner defaulted on a $27 million loan. The port, which owns the land under Channelside, now also would assume control of the buildings and any third-party operating lease. By removing the bank from the picture, the port brings all decision-making under local control. And by purchasing Channelside for an affordable price, the port has a better shot at attracting a responsible operator who sees Channelside's long-range potential.
The deal still faces several technical legal hurdles that should not hold up the sale for long. The next step for the board, which it should discuss at its meeting Tuesday, is how to proceed in writing the next chapter for Channelside. The board could manage the complex or lease it to a third-party. It should explore the benefits and drawbacks of both. The city would benefit if the port had some skin in the game and more leverage over how Channelside impacts its surroundings. The board should also think through what qualifications any potential operator must bring to the table, from having a positive track record in operating retail to demonstrating the financial ability to make the place competitive.
Port board chairman Stephen Swindal served the community well by recognizing the public value of Channelside and moving quickly to resolve the ownership impasse. The economic recovery and the phenomenal growth in the channel district present rich opportunities for Channelside to re-market itself to residents and tourists alike. The board should begin looking at what concepts might work, and then reach out through a bidding process to find the best partner. The complex has the location and the footprint to energize the channel district as well as all of downtown. It needs a vision to match and follow through from the port to make this purchase a promising step in an entirely new direction.