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A complex situation

Three entertainment centers are set to open in the area. But will the risky ventures prove to be too much of a good thing?

The first Ron Jon's Surf Shop on Florida's West Coast will be at Channelside in Tampa. A mile away at the multiplex in Centro Ybor, moviegoers will be able to step up to a bar and order a martini to go with their popcorn. At BayWalk in St. Petersburg, the restaurant choices will range from Italian cuisine at Gratzi to Dan Marino's Town Tavern.

The assault of the new urban entertainment centers is about to hit the Tampa Bay area.

Over the next three months, three equally flashy but distinctive centers will be vying to be the coolest place for wining, dining or just killing time and a few bucks.

Centro Ybor in Tampa's Ybor City is set to open Oct. 5. By mid to late November, it will be joined by Channelside, alongside the Florida Aquarium at the Port of Tampa, and by BayWalk, two blocks from the bay in downtown St. Petersburg.

All three centers will feature glitzy movie palaces with cushy stadium seating, open air cafes and restaurants with trendy themes, fountains, free live entertainment and the first batch of national chain retailers to nest in urban neighborhoods here in decades.

And all of the centers are based on the same bold but risky idea: that mid-sized centers lacking the big department stores of suburban malls can lure residents and tourists downtown by offering an engaging array of shopping and entertainment options.

"We answer the question whether you eat dinner before or after trying to make it to a 7 p.m. movie," said Craig Sher, president of the Sembler Co., which is developing BayWalk in St. Petersburg and is among the partners in Centro Ybor. "Here you can do it all in one place and linger in a quality environment."

But such centers are still a tricky new form of retail entertainment. The few dozen centers built around the country in the past five years have a mixed track record.

"Urban entertainment centers live solely off discretionary spending and have yet to prove they can survive a recession," said Maggie Gilliam, a veteran New York retail investment analyst. Noting in particular that Centro Ybor and Channelside are a short ride apart, Gilliam added, "Tampa is clearly being oversaturated."

The model for the local entertainment centers is a project called Cocowalk that opened in Miami's Coconut Grove in 1988. It has had its ups and downs, including an unsuccessful expansion that left it with vacant storefronts. It has been copied by other developers in Boca Raton, Delray Beach and Miami with varying degrees of success. Three entertainment centers opened in Fort Lauderdale in 1998; one already has closed.

The urban entertainment centers are designed to serve as new town centers _ the symbol of the hometown where locals take visiting relatives.

"These projects are about creating pedestrian-friendly spaces where people go for social interaction and to just feel good," said Yaramir Steiner, president of Steiner + Associates, which developed CocoWalk and is now the lead partner in Centro Ybor.

The centers depend on drawing a substantial crowd of tourists who are eager to spend.

Overseas travelers spend an average of $330 per trip on gifts and souvenirs, according to the International Travel Association. Domestic travelers spent $35.4-billion on retail purchases in 1999, and a big majority rate shopping their top vacation activity, according to the Travel Industry Association.

"Tourists spend the first day of their vacation getting sunburned, then go shopping the second, third and fourth," said Charles Fraser, developer of South Seas Plantation in Hilton Head, S.C., who built several golf resorts in Florida.

All of the new bay area developments will be saddled with the bane of urban retailing: parking fees. Parking will cost $1 to $2 for three hours, although parking at BayWalk will be free for the first 90 days. All of the garages were built by local governments.

In Tampa, the city is spending $31-million more to lay track for a revival of its old electric streetcar system that will connect downtown convention hotels with Channelside and a stop in the heart of Centro Ybor for about $1 a ride.

While the entertainment centers hustle to open before this winter's Super Bowl in Tampa, the trolleys won't be ready to run for a year.

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For all their similarities, each of the new developments comes with its own history, and each will have its own identity:

+ CENTRO YBOR: Builders of the $48-million project tried to blend into the neighboring historic district by using eight shades of red brick in new buildings and by putting a tavern in the renovated Centro Espanol, a historic social club dating back to 1912 where many Tampa couples first met. There even will be an old fashioned cigar billboard that puffs real smoke.

Centro Ybor is part of an attempt by Tampa's city leaders to gentrify a wild bar district that typically draws 20,000 people a night on weekends.

"It will make Ybor a daytime destination and reinvigorate a historic district that has been lost for the past several years," said Jay Miller, a Steiner vice president.

To discourage teens with little cash, Centro Ybor's developers concentrated on higher-priced restaurants, avoiding the fast food outlets that will be included in the rival projects. Luring families, however, still promises to be tough: Stores within a block have leather lingerie and posters of female impersonators in their display windows.

+ CHANNELSIDE: The $45-million complex will be a more urbane waterfront alternative, with colorful awnings beckoning customers to its balcony restaurants. With the aquarium, convention center and cruise ship terminal nearby, Channelside is counting on tourists to provide half of its traffic, compared to 40 percent at Centro Ybor and about 25 percent at BayWalk.

Channelside developers bristle at reminders they are building just a few blocks from the site of the ill-fated Harbour Island Shoppes, a "festival marketplace" twice as big that closed after a short run less than a decade ago.

"A lot has changed here since then," said Gary Lewis, vice president of retail for the Hogan Group, Channelside's developer. "We've got 200 Ice Palace events across the street every year, 500,000 cruise passengers docking at our back door annually, 600,000 people visiting the aquarium, there's a new Marriott and 6,000 people now live on Harbour Island."

+ BAYWALK: The $40-million BayWalk's eye-catching bell tower and mission roofline is geared to woo downtown waterfront pedestrians into a Mediterranean-style courtyard of cafe society indulgences. BayWalk was an attempt by St. Petersburg city officials to find a more realistic substitute for an overly ambitious downtown mall project that failed in 1995.

Instead of trying to cover six city blocks, they cut the plan to two blocks, the retail space by 90 percent and settled on a collection of stores more likely to prosper in the city's awakened downtown, which draws 2.3-million tourists to the Pier every year. The first new large retail space built downtown since 1978, BayWalk also houses the city's only movie theaters east of U.S. 19 and south of Ulmerton Road.

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The bay area's entertainment center building binge has been complicated by a burst of mall construction. A hint of the brewing competition came in 1995: the three bidders for Channelside were Hogan, Sembler and Madison Marquette, a Cincinnati firm that later bought and expanded Old Hyde Park Village.

With WestShore Plaza, Old Hyde Park Village and the the new International Plaza vying for many of the same tenants and installing restaurant rows of their own, the market is favorable for retail tenants.

"We actually had less competition from the other entertainment centers than from International Plaza," said Mike Hogan, president and chief executive of the Hogan Group.

Combined, the malls and entertainment centers will add 30 new restaurants to the dining scene over the next year. Most of them hope to fetch $15 to $20 for a typical dinner, and most have a gimmick of some sort.

"History tells us that with so many new restaurants, a lot of them are going to have a tough time and many will fail," said Richard Gonzmart, president of the Columbia Restaurant Group, which operates the successful chain of six Spanish restaurants and five ChaCha Coconuts.

Restaurant ideas often have a short life cycle, as demonstrated by the recent troubles of oversized celebrity-backed theme restaurants such as Planet Hollywood.

Some restaurant ideas may not travel well, either because of differences in local tastes or problems in replicating quality and service. Toojays, which is coming to BayWalk, has thrived as an upscale deli in Palm Beach. But a previous attempt to open branches all over the Tampa Bay area failed in 1991. Sher says it's different this time because TooJay's owners are in charge rather than a franchisee.

Some restaurants in the new bay area complexes are well established chains, such as Johnny Rockets, a '50s-style burger and malt shop. Others are a leap of faith.

Jack Scall, who runs four successful restaurants called fire+ice in Boston and Rhode Island, is trying a variation called dish that will make its debut in BayWalk and Centro Ybor. Diners will choose ingredients for a chef to cook on a giant grill.

"With a choice of 30 fresh vegetables, six types of seafood, six types of meat and 30 elegant sauces for people to pick from, we've got 1.4-million combinations for our chefs to saute," said Scall, an economist who got into the restaurant business on a lark after running the recycling program for the state of Massachusetts.

The anchor tenant of each of the new entertainment centers will be a new megaplex movie theater. It's an attraction the developers were lucky to land.

After a building spree in the last few years, most of the major theater companies are saddled with huge debt and few takers for their older, smaller theaters.

Most of the big theater operators are in Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization or in violation of operating restrictions on their crushing debt load. Experts say 5,000 of the 37,000 screens in the United States will be closed and investors will be unwilling to underwrite new theaters for companies in bankruptcy.

An exception has been Fort Lauderdale-based Muvico Theaters, which will run the theaters in BayWalk and Centro Ybor. The small, young company sold its older locations and custom-tailored theaters for entertainment centers complete with luxurious lobbies, bistro food such as sushi and child care centers.

Channelside did not escape the movie theater crunch unscathed. Regal Cinemas shrank the number of screens it is building there from 16 to 10 and eliminated a mock lighthouse that was to be the center's icon.

Last month, Regal hired a consultant to pick which new theaters can be killed while the debt-riddled company restructures to satisfy the bankers.

"We can say we're definitely opening our theater at Channelside," said David Westerling, Regal's senior vice president of marketing. "We just don't have a firm date yet."

The backers of the three new bay area centers exude enthusiasm. But they also sound a bit weary of the long, hard effort to get this far.

Steiner has another entertainment center under construction near Cincinnati, but the two locally based developers say the five-year exercise was less profitable and more time-consuming than the office buildings and suburban shopping centers they usually build.

Would they be tempted to build another urban entertainment center?

"Heck no," Hogan said.

"We wanted the experience of experimenting with this new genre," said Sembler's Sher. "But I think we will give it a rest."

Coming soon . . .

The three new entertainment centers scheduled to open between Oct. 5 and Thanksgiving Day will bring to the Tampa Bay area a total of:

+ 49 more movie theater screens

+ 17 new restaurants

+ 7 national retailers new to the market

+ 7 retail chains that will open their first stores outside of large regional malls.

+ 1 more comedy club

+ 1 more IMAX theater

COMPLEXES COMPARED

BAYWALK

Opens: Mid- to late-November

Location: four acres in downtown St. Petersburg

Size: 154,000 square feet, seeking grocery store for 55,000 square feet addition

Cost: $40-million

Government Help: $15-million for parking garage and streetscape

Developers: Sembler Co., Bullard Group and Van McNeil

Tenants:

Restaurants:

Adobo Grill, new concept by owners of Red Mesa

dish, no-menu concept by creator of Fire+Ice in Boston

Johnny Rockets, 1950s style burgers and shakes

Gratzi, white table cloth Italian restuarant

Toojay's, breakfast/deli from Palm Beach County

Dan Marino's Town Tavern, martini bar from CocoWalk in Miami

Wet Willie's, outdoor daiquiri bar

Theater

Muvico, 20 screens with stadium seating and child care center

Stores

Ann Taylor, tailored womens apparel

People's Pottery, crafts by 300 artists

Sacino's Formalwear

Creations Australian Jewelers

Key West Confections, candy

Cricket Shop, resort wear

The Acorn, women's apparel

BayWalk Booksmiths, coffee bar and books

Birkenstock by Happy Feet

Afterthoughts, costume jewelry

Hurricane Pass, tropical casual apparel from the owner of Short's in Clearwater

Eyetems, fashion optical

Six kiosk vendors

Pending

GBX Shoes

Five Fish, gift shop from Tarpon Springs

CENTRO YBOR

Opens: Thursday, Oct. 5

Location: Renovated Centro Espanol on seven acres in Tampa's Ybor City.

Size: 210,000 square feet

Cost: $48-million

Government help: $17-million in parking garages (second one opens in 2001), $1.5-million in streetscape improvements, $9-million federal HUD loan and shares benefit of $31-million trolley car system linking Ybor with downtown beginning in October 2001.

Developers: Steiner + Associates of Columbus, Ohio, Sembler Co. and BVT Equities of Atlanta

Theater

Muvico 20, stadium seating with child care center, bistro food, and liqour bar for premium priced seats that include food trays.

Attractions

Gameworks, state-of-the-art arcade, sports bar and restaurant

Improv, 425-seat comedy club owned by Cleveland franchisee of Chicago-based clubs

Ybor City Museum and Visitors Center

Restaurants

Big City Tavern, New American cuisine in a bar set in an historic ballroom

dish, no-menu restaurant featuring 30 sauces and sauteed meats and seafood.

Cafe Mezzanote, Italian restaurant from South Florida

Big Mouth Grill, oversized burgers, salads

Adobe Gilas, Mexican margarita bar

Starbucks

Stores

Camelot Music, latest prototype store for national chain

Ybor BookSmiths, books and cafe

GBX Shoes

Metropolitan Deluxe, Atlanta-based lifestlyle retailer offering handmade greeting cards and home decor

Victoria's Secret

American Eagle Outfitters, apparel

Eyetems, fashion optical

bods.bodynits, activewear

Pacific Sunwear

Ferdie Pacheco Art Gallery

Silver Edge, jewelry

Afterthoughts, costume jewelry

Pending

Lazy Flamingo, seafood restaurant from Sanibel

Urban Outfitter, Gen X decor and apparel

Channelside

Opens: Mid- to late-November

Location: four acres between Florida Aquarium and Ice Palace in downtown Tampa

Size: 230,000 square feet, with option for a block across Channelside Drive for office and retail

Cost: $45-million

Government help: shares $17-million parking garage with cruise port and $31-million trolley system linking Ybor City with downtown that opens in October 2001

Developers: Hogan Group, fee developer for Orix Real Estate Equity Corp. of Chicago

Tenants

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