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Movies may come downtown in 1994

Offering a glimmer of hope for the sluggish downtown, Bay Plaza Cos. president Robert L. Jackson on Thursday said a multiscreen movie complex could open in a new building in 1994.

The key word is "could."

"We have no written lease agreement," he said. When asked about verbal agreements, he said, "I'm not going to comment on negotiations."

Executives of the Kansas City, Mo.-based AMC movie theater chain repeatedly have said they are interested in putting a large group of theaters in downtown St. Petersburg. But they have not committed to a date or a lease for the project.

Likewise, until Thursday, Jackson was guarded about tenants, for good reason: His predecessor, former Bay Plaza president Neil Elsey, became known for hinting and winking about prospective downtown tenants that never came. Elsey resigned in May amid personal financial troubles, and Jackson was appointed by Bay Plaza's parent, Kansas City-based J.

C. Nichols Co., to take over the struggling St. Petersburg project.

Bay Plaza, which has a contract to redevelop the downtown into a shopping and entertainment district, already has built a building at First Street and Central Avenue, known as South Core, which is vacant. With construction of the next phase, Mid Core, scheduled to start by June 30, Bay Plaza is seeking a contract extension that would allow it to wait until December 1993 before starting the new building. The City Council is expected to approve the extension in a vote March 5.

In an address to the City Council on Thursday, Jackson said that Mid Core construction could start in 1993 in order to have it ready to house movie theaters by sometime in 1994.

"Obviously we have been talking with AMC theaters .

.

.," Jackson said. "And so I think some of that planning could certainly be accomplished now, and has to be accomplished now, because we've got a big design job ahead of us."

If an arrangement can be worked out with AMC, he said, Bay Plaza will spend a lot of time "as well as a lot of money in designing the Mid Core building to suit the needs of a specialized tenant such as that."

"It is extremely difficult, quite frankly, to construct a movie theater," Jackson said. "You can't do it with just a normal 16{-to-17-foot-floor-to-ceiling."

That means that in the coming months, "even though there won't be physical progress, there's going to be a lot of work being done."

In an interview later, he said, "We would like to have a lease agreement reached for the movie theaters by the end of 1992."

He also said, "We would hope that a movie theater chain would not be the only tenant we would have signed before we commenced construction."

Asked about the skepticism of residents who grew wary of Bay Plaza's claims under Elsey, Jackson told a St. Petersburg Times reporter, "I think that the people in St. Petersburg should take into consideration Chuck Stilley's comments to you on Feb. 6."

On that day, Charles P. Stilley, an AMC senior vice president, said that a theater with 16 to 20 screens in Mid Core is "as likely as anyplace in the country right now." He could not be reached for comment Thursday.

In what Jackson characterized as another sign of Bay Plaza's commitment to St. Petersburg, he said his company hopes to close on its planned purchase of the Tropicana Building in March. The Tropicana, at 25 Second St. N, houses Bay Plaza's offices.

The building is owned by a partnership controlled by Southeast Capital Corp., but Bay Plaza took out an option to buy it in 1987. In June, soon after Jackson became head of Bay Plaza, he said he had signed a contract to buy the building.

"There have been delays in closing for a variety of reasons," Jackson said Thursday.

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