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City finds funds for Centro Ybor bailout

City officials have figured out which wallet to open in order to make the first payment on loans they're taking over for the struggling Centro Ybor project, they told Tampa City Council members Thursday, but there are a lot more decisions to be made.

The February payment, about $300,000, will come from Community Development Block Grant funds, city officials said. But after that, no one knows for sure where they're going to come up with the money.

The city also hopes to solicit the aid of a legal expert to help deal with negotiations with the sources of those loans, said Bonnie Wise, the city's director of revenue and finance.

Wise and economic development administrator Mark Huey made the first of what they expect to be "many more" presentations before council members on the issue.

The city is scrambling to come up with money because Centro Ybor, the shopping complex that was supposed to drive the revitalization of Ybor City, defaulted on its loans and sought a bailout.

To make the project happen, the city had pledged tax funds to cover a $9-million loan from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. If developers couldn't make the payments, the city promised it would. It pledged dollars intended for low-income housing and community development.

Over the next 14 years, the total price tag, with interest, will be more than $16-million.

The city wants to talk to HUD about restructuring its loan and also work with the bank and the developers, Wise said. The next payment is due in August.

"We're not just standing by to let this issue go unresolved," Wise told council members.

Huey sounded optimistic in saying that Centro Ybor could possibly recover.

"We expect to be making debt service payments for a while and hope fortunes reverse," he said, adding that it was an "opportunity to make lemonade out of lemons."

Council member Shawn Harrison said it would take wholesale changes in order for Centro Ybor to make a turnaround. "I mean night-and-day changes," he said. "It's not working now."

Huey said the demise of Centro Ybor began when Muvico left and then the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks happened.

Then, competing malls and shopping areas popped up.

Council member Kevin White urged residents to save Ybor.

"Right now, Ybor has a big black eye," White said. "It's incumbent on the city of Tampa to not kick Ybor while it's down."

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