TAMPA — This week's closing of Channelside Cinemas came as another disappointment to tenants of the struggling Channelside Bay Plaza and upped the urgency to change the center's ownership.
Several business owners said they hope a deal can be reached with Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik before even more tenants leave. Vinik, whose team plays next door at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, leads a group that's negotiating to buy and revamp the complex.
"We want Vinik,'' said Crystal Florio, whose family owns Qachbal Chocolatier. "He would be such a relief. He's a good businessman.''
Florio said she knew the theaters were in trouble but was shocked by the abrupt closing Tuesday night without any notice to other tenants.
"We don't know what's going to happen now,'' she said. "One of the reasons we stayed open late on Fridays and Saturdays was because of the movie theater.''
The theater filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last year and had been in ongoing disputes with its landlord. Its closure left another gaping hole in the 233,000-square-foot center and leaves only Oishi Sushi and Thai Thani on the second level once occupied by Gallagher's Steak House, Bennigan's, Margarita Mama's and Banana Joe's. It came just a few weeks after Stump's Supper Club and Howl at the Moon shuttered after a long run.
Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the relationship between the theater and the landlord had been deteriorating for a few years, and it was time for them to part ways for the long-term benefit of Channelside.
"I think this will give Jeff Vinik, or whoever takes over the property, an opportunity to have a clean sweep,'' he said. "They'll have less worries about dislocating tenants. They'll have a clean slate to work with for the construction, renovations and face lift. To me, it's a good thing.''
Tiffany Davies, marketing and events director for Stump's and Howl at the Moon, along with Tinatapa's, Splitsville and the Boathouse at Channelside, said that while the timing of the theater's closing was unfortunate, she still believes in Channelside as a destination for tourists, conventioneers and locals. She hopes its departure gives Vinik's group another bargaining tool for transforming the complex.
Vinik's ownership group, which includes Andrew Wright of the real estate firm Franklin Street and Anthony Everett of Everett Realty Services, has emerged as the frontrunner to take over Channelside.
The complex was bought in 2006 by New York real estate firm Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp. but fell into receivership in 2010 after the firm failed to make payments on its $27 million loan. The bank, Anglo Irish Bank of Dublin, took back the property, and Chuck Taylor, a senior vice president at Madison Marquette, was appointed the property's receiver in charge of Channelside's management and operations.
The Tampa Port Authority owns the land under the center and has to approve any offer. Two months ago, tired of waiting for a deal, the port revived its eviction lawsuit against the former owner, but resolution of the suit could take months.
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In the meantime, port officials said Vinik's ownership group is diligently pursuing plans for the center with architects and contractors and is working with Irish bank officials to finalize an agreement.
Lightning spokesman Bill Wickett, speaking on behalf of the Vinik group, said its members ''remain patiently committed to the Channelside project, and we are monitoring the developments with more than just a casual interest." He would not say what was delaying the negotiations and would not speculate on how the theater's vacancy could affect the deal.
Vinik has not publicly said what his plans are for Channelside, but he told the port authority's governing board in July that he envisions a re-imagined center with more retail, better pedestrian access and possibly a hotel to add visitors. His group compared the concept to the L.A. Live complex, a mix of condos, hotels, restaurants and shops next to the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Richard Nietzel, whose son and daughter-in-law own Wine Design at Channelside, said changes can't come soon enough. Their business suffered before and during the Republican National Convention in August and is down 35 percent from its peak a few years ago.
"They better hurry up and get it done,'' he said. "I'm always telling people that they ought to get both sides in a room and let them fight it out. We need a catalyst for this area, or we'll have to start all over again.''