Precinct Pizza loses its lease and closes as Channelside Bay Plaza turns into Sparkman Wharf

A former first responder who rushed to the World Trade Center on 9/11, Rick Drury ran Precinct Pizza at Channelside Bay Plaza from 2006 to Tuesday, when he told customers that his lease was not being renewed. (Times files)
A former first responder who rushed to the World Trade Center on 9/11, Rick Drury ran Precinct Pizza at Channelside Bay Plaza from 2006 to Tuesday, when he told customers that his lease was not being renewed. (Times files)
Published Sept. 4, 2018

TAMPA — Precinct Pizza has endured a lot — the Great Recession, ineffective landlords and a Republican National Convention that turned the area around Channelside Bay Plaza into a no-man's-land that reminded owner Rick Drury of the movie Escape from New York.

But Precinct Pizza will not survive Channelside's transformation into Sparkman Wharf.

"It is with great sorrow that we announce that Precinct Pizza in Channelside is closed permanently effective immediately," Drury said on the restaurant's Facebook page Tuesday. "Our lease was not renewed."

In a brief email to a Tampa Bay Times reporter, Drury said "we received no notice" and had to be out of its ground-floor spot next to Hooters, which is also leaving, by Sept. 27.

In response to several Facebook comments, Drury said that he brought in employees Sunday for a tearful meeting to break the news, doesn't have the money to relocate and indicated that the business would be liquidated and the equipment auctioned off.

"Wish we were offered time," he wrote in response to one customer. "This was total shock. Never saw it coming."

In a longer Facebook post, he praised his staff:

Many of these people worked in a hot kitchen to make the amazing food for our customers. Many would come in early or stay late to try and make the store the best it could be. Many of them would work harder than even Jessica and I could have ever expected. Our drivers would deliver in the worst of weather conditions in an effort to give the best service possible. These people are truly an amazing group that deserve better praise more than I or Jessica could ever provide.

I am a truly broken human being right now. I am watching these people, who just lost their jobs yesterday through no fault of their own, come in again to help Jessica and I clean the equipment for the eventual auction that is to come. They came in to help remove all of our signage. They came in to help transport food and equipment to our other location. They are scrubbing the stove, the fryers and other equipment, all without getting paid to do so.

I love these people. I am in tears while typing this. How do you show your appreciation to people like this when you have lost everything and have nothing left to give?

A spokeswoman for Strategic Property Partners, the Jeff Vinik-Cascade Investment company that is redeveloping Channelside Bay Plaza, did not respond to questions from the Times on Tuesday about why Precinct Pizza had to leave and what will go in the space it is vacating.

Sparkman Wharf's transformation is part of the $3 billion Water Street Tampa mixed-use development. Over the past several weeks, SPP has unveiled 10 bars and restaurants that will populate an outdoor food court overlooking the waterfront, among them a Detroit-style pizza place called The Corners Pizza.

Drury opened Precinct Pizza in 2006. On Sept. 11, 2001, he was working for an ambulance company, rushed to the World Trade Center and later was hired as a New York City paramedic. So, not surprisingly, the shop had a New York City and first-responder theme.

In 2012, before the Republican National Convention, Drury hired extra staff in anticipation of tripling his business for the week. Instead, he lost $5,000 and would have lost more if Ron Paul supporters had not camped out at his shop after being kicked out of the convention.

ONE YEAR LATER: Officials say GOP convention boosted Tampa Bay's prospects, but not everyone benefited

"It was just a police state" that "completely strangled business," Drury said afterward. Channelside and other streets were closed, so Drury couldn't deliver pizzas. Inside the RNC's security perimeter, delegates looked through steel mesh at guards with automatic weapons and did not wander out. Drury didn't blame them.

"No way I would leave that perimeter," he said in 2013. "I would think it was like Escape from New York out there."

Through the uncertainty about Channelside's future, and whether Vinik's company would gain control of the complex, Drury repeatedly expressed hope for the future.

Two years ago, Drury told the Times that 2015 was Precinct Pizza's busiest year yet, largely because of the crowds brought in by the NHL playoffs and new residential development nearby.

"We love to see all the construction of new housing in the Channel District and cannot wait till USF's Morsani College of Medicine opens up diagonally across the street," Drury said. He acknowledged that he had "no idea" what SPP's plans were for Channelside, but hoped for better things.

"It's no secret that Channelside has had enough failed projects and people who did not have the best of intentions for its tenants, so we are very optimistic about Mr. Vinik's vision," Drury said in 2016. "The tenants here believe in Mr. Vinik and that he will do the right thing for the tenants and for the district."

On its Facebook page Tuesday, the restaurant had a message for customers: "Thank you everyone for making Precinct Pizza of Channelside the busiest independent pizzeria for the last three years in Florida. Please come and support us at our Cross Creek location," which is at 10970 Cross Creek Blvd. in New Tampa.

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