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Look, Ma: It happened

BayWalk actually took shape downtown. People actually crowded the theaters. Pieces of the mountain of confidence began to jell.

BayWalk remains a work in progress. Stores and restaurants still are under construction. But the $40-million entertainment/retail complex, propelled by the Muvico 20-screen theater, opened Nov. 17.

That alone is significant.

BayWalk is more than a new business enterprise. It is a project equivalent to a mountain of confidence for the city of St. Petersburg. After several unrealized plans and one false start, plus a near-unshakable reputation as a sad, sleepy city, St. Petersburg finally has a downtown redevelopment project.

Mayor David Fischer said the significance of BayWalk was "enormous to the city." He described it as the centerpiece of making downtown a truly livable area.

"It's putting all of the pieces together," Fischer said. "Without BayWalk, you have downtown living, but you wouldn't have the attraction to make it worthwhile to come in from the suburbs."

It is an irony that the redevelopment project that was supposed to jump-start the downtown actually joined a number of projects already in the works, including three high-rise, luxury condominiums.

Still, owners of other downtown building or rehabilitation ventures, such as David Moore, who is renovating the Pennsylvania Hotel, cite proximity to BayWalk as one of the reasons they expect to succeed.

Muvico, the anchor of BayWalk, is a success, according to Edward Taylor, managing director of the theater.

"Excellent, above average, outstanding," Taylor said, describing crowds at the 20 screens during the first month of operation.

"Our high attendance day so far has been 11,000," he said. That was the day after Thanksgiving, when a lot of the shows were sold out.

Fifteen shops and restaurants are open or will be by week's end, and six kiosks operate in BayWalk's courtyard. The other seven stores are scheduled to open in January and February. That could change depending on construction progress, as was evident with the first group. A few did not make the Nov. 17 date but are open now. One large space remains to be leased.

BayWalk drastically changed the look of downtown, converting several blocks that had been empty or underused. In addition to the complex, a parking garage paid for by the city was built a block away.

Even after all the shops and restaurants are open, BayWalk will remain fluid as residents and visitors determine its success. That may come under a direct test if the economy, which has been robust for a long time, hits a snag.

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