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GROWING PAINS

This is a story about two retail and entertainment complexes born about the same time at about the same cost.

Centro Ybor, in Tampa's historic entertainment district of Ybor City, opened Oct. 5 last year. BayWalk, two blocks from St. Petersburg's downtown waterfront, opened a month later.

Both cost about the same: BayWalk, $40-million; Centro, $45-million.

But identical twins they are not.

One has accomplished more than anyone ever imagined, while the other has fallen short of expectations.

It is BayWalk that is winning praises over Centro Ybor.

BayWalk is attracting young, single professionals, married couples, teenagers and shoppers. Its 20-screen Muvico theater complex "has been tremendous," said Hamid Hashemi, Muvico's president and chief executive officer.

And the stores are over-achieving. Wet Willies, Ann Taylor and People's Pottery are all among top performers in their chains, according to Craig Sher, president of Sembler Co., the developer of Baywalk.

In Ybor City, on the other hand, there are growing pains.

"We knew it would take time," said Jay Miller, vice president of Centro Ybor developer Steiner + Associates. "We knew it was a little risky to build a project like this in Ybor City. But we have faith it will hit its stride in three years. We still feel very bullish."

Hashemi said Centro had expected to pull from Ybor's already young crowd. But that hasn't happened and he blames competition, something BayWalk hasn't had to deal with. The closest mall to BayWalk is Tyrone Square Mall, 5 miles away.

Centro Ybor and its attached 20-screen Muvico complex competes with theaters at Channelside, West Shore Plaza and Brandon Town Center.

If he had to do it over again, Miller said, "I think we would have certainly put in a smaller theater. Given the number of screens we have in Tampa right now, we didn't need 20 here."

The ongoing disruption caused by the construction of a 1,200-space parking garage and an electric trolley is another issue BayWalk hasn't had to face.

"One day I came out here and they were forging steel right here in the center of our project," Miller said.

But Centro's biggest challenge is one it had since day one: Ybor City's edgy reputation.

"We need to get down here the people who now say, "I don't go to Ybor City' for whatever reason: too many kids; too dangerous," said John Schall, the owner of Dish, which has second-floor restaurants in the corners of both Centro Ybor and BayWalk.

Try as it might, Ybor City can't shed its reputation as a rowdy place after dark.

Last summer, a face-scanning computer software system was linked to the security cameras along Seventh Avenue to help police spot known criminals. The attendant nationwide publicity often referred to "crime-ridden Ybor City."

Within seven months of Centro Ybor's opening, a Brandon man was charged with raping a woman he picked up in Ybor, and a USF student died when a car ran over him during a brawl. Last Friday, citing a growing concern, Tampa police announced a crackdown on underage drinking in Ybor.

Hashemi said people need to feel more comfortable in Ybor City.

The opening of Urban Outfitters last Friday means Centro Ybor is 86 percent leased, with five empty spaces. BayWalk has two unleased spaces.

Centro lost three businesses in its first year: the Ferdie Pacheco Gallery; Cafe Mezzanotte, an Italian restaurant; and Bods.bodynits, a space facing Seventh Avenue quickly filled by another trendy clothing shop, Ocean Drive Fashion.

A loss of three businesses in the first year is about average for an entertainment complex like Centro, Miller said.

"It's very typical of a project in urban locations," he said. "You have to figure out what the customer is looking for. It is much more challenging and you have to be much more creative than in a suburban location, where it is a little more formulated."

Not everybody is struggling at Centro, however.

Compared with other locations across the country, GameWorks at Centro is "consistently in the top three in performance," said Jamie Dodd, a Tampa GameWorks spokesman. "And that's shoulder to shoulder with places like Las Vegas, which is three times the size of the Ybor location."

The Improv comedy club at Centro has sold out 23 weekends out of the 37 weeks it's been open, said promotions coordinator Gary Menke.

But more is needed to make Centro work, Menke said. "There needs to be another destination than GameWorks and us."

Meanwhile, the economy continues to stumble in the wake of Sept. 11.

"The economy was good, we put our projects in the ground and we will be ready for the economy to spruce up," said Fernando Noriega, the Tampa mayor's development administrator.

And there are hopes the trolley linking downtown and Centro will drum up business when it is completed next year.

"This place is going to explode in the next few years," said Schall, Dish restaurant owner.

_ Times staff writer Sharon Bond contributed to this report.

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