With a significant commitment from both the public and private sectors, BayWalk played a key role in the renaissance of downtown St. Petersburg nearly a decade ago. Now with the entertainment complex dotted with empty storefronts and tied up in bankruptcy court, a prominent symbol of what went right cannot become the deserted symbol of today's economic recession. The city helped to create BayWalk. Now it must take reasonable steps to help save it.
The news in recent days has seemed to go from bad to worse. A foreclosure hearing on the retail part of the complex is set for next month. Separately, Muvico, which operates the adjoining cinema multiplex, has said it might shutter the theaters. Mayor Rick Baker and the city government need to continue to make it clear that the city is willing to help shape a solution to return one of downtown's anchors to vibrancy.
A little history. BayWalk opened almost exactly eight years ago, rising from the ashes of the doomed, grandiose Bay Plaza project backed by the city. Land assembled for Bay Plaza made BayWalk possible. The city built and still owns the garage, which is paid off. It sold two other pieces — what became the BayWalk retail and where the multiplex is — to separate buyers at favorable prices.
"A sense of place, that's what we're creating," BayWalk developer Mel Sembler said at the time. And so it was. BayWalk became the city gathering spot. It is easy to forget just how much BayWalk mattered — and how hard it was to pull off.
Much has changed in the past eight years. Other parts of the downtown have blossomed. Stores at BayWalk have come and gone. Concerns about safety and comfort — whether from rowdy teens, protesters or the parking garage — have ebbed and flowed.
Now downtown St. Petersburg is at a crossroads. The city worked long and hard to make BayWalk possible. It should work equally hard to keep it and to be an honest broker in encouraging a new mix of retail, restaurants and movies to help it flourish anew.
The city should improve security, landscaping, parking — maybe even cut a deal on parking rates or on the rental of retail space in the street-level storefronts the city owns under the garage.
A foreclosure proceeding and public auction could actually provide the right buyer a chance to own the property at a better price without legal encumbrances. So the bad news could take a turn for the better if the city aggressively works as an agent of change. It could be an opportunity to fix in one stroke the problems that have slowly accrued. The key is for public and private parties to coalesce around a common vision for BayWalk, one that serves the public as its civic center but also turns a profit.
Not so long ago, BayWalk was the place to be. Perceptions change, and sometimes those perceptions change the reality as well. But a city that wants to keep a tight hold on its major-league baseball team should not lose its only movie theaters and a venue as high-profile as BayWalk. City officials should stay well connected to the movie executives and would-be investors, and they should take all reasonable steps to ensure the complex is an attractive downtown destination.