ST. PETERSBURG — Local magnate Bill Edwards expected to have a new food hall open at the Sundial mall by December, but now it’s unclear if the food hall will open at all.
Right now, one third of the Sundial remains a dormant construction zone, according to a new lawsuit filed this week.
Edwards' company, Loan Rangers Acquisitions, filed the suit in Hillsborough County accusing the heads of popular Tampa food hall Armature Works of purposefully delaying construction and defaulting on a lease agreement for the planned St. Pete food hall. They did so, Edwards alleges, as part of a plot to push Edwards into financial distress in order to acquire the mall at a steep discount.
Further, the lawsuit says the St. Pete food hall team, comprised of Armature Works president Frank Scalfaro and restaurant developer Chas Bruck, used the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse for the delays. It also says they removed $6.5 million worth of fixtures and kitchen equipment without following up to quickly fill the space and attempted to change the food hall concept they agreed upon altogether.
“The mall that I purchased was blighted,” Edwards said in a statement. “The Sundial today is a focal point for our community, it has given me great pride and happiness, and a sense of accomplishment. So I see it as a tragedy that one third of the Sundial is and remains vacant for reasons that have been beyond my control.”
Scalfaro declined to comment. Bruck did not immediately respond to a voicemail or text message seeking comment.
Edwards bought the once-struggling mall in 2011 and spent millions on renovations. The food hall deal was supposed to bring the Sundial to new heights, the lawsuit said. Instead, it’s become a debacle.
The lease between Loan Rangers and St. Pete Market LLC, which is controlled by Scalfaro, included an option for the food hall operators to buy the entire mall for $32 million, the suit says. Edwards' attorney John A. Anthony argues in the lawsuit that the Armature Works team intentionally delayed obtaining building permits and blamed the pandemic for slowed construction as means to get a better option price.
“Bill Edwards had every reason to believe that the tenant would have the same motivation and results at the Sundial that has been experienced at Armature Works,” Anthony said in a statement. “But with one third of a premier venue dormant, Mr. Edwards has an obligation to himself and the top shelf commercial tenants at Sundial, as well as their employees and customers, to deal with this situation.”
Edwards shuttered Locale Market and Farm Table Cucina and relocated other tenants to make way for the food hall. The expectation, the lawsuit says, was that the food hall team would immediately begin the work of acquiring permits and developing the space when they officially gained possession in May.
The lawsuit says Edwards and his team recognize the pandemic as a “true phenomenon” but called the construction delays perplexing.
“Instead of utilizing the time when all other restaurants were closed to complete renovations for a grand opening” the lawsuit says the food hall “put itself in a position where the state of Florida has now begun to reopen ... and the tenant is still months away from opening because of its own delays.”
The lawsuit also says the Armature Works executives attempted to change the entire concept into a banquet hall, which would only be in use when large parties rented it out. Since they agreed on rent based on the percentage of revenue, this would bring in far less money to the mall overall and attract fewer people to the surrounding businesses.
“From my days as a young man fighting in Vietnam, I have always had a sense of community and have tried to do the right thing," Edwards said in a statement. “Making money has not been a zero sum game, I have operated on the premise that ‘a rising tide lifts all ships.”
As result, he said he’s doing his best to “correct the situation.”
The lawsuit seeks payment of the rent Sundial expected to received over the decade-long lease agreement, a declaration the tenants abandoned the mall and the return of $6.5 million in equipment and fixtures Edwards contends was removed from the property.