Summer is always slow for many businesses at Channelside Bay Plaza.
Most of the cruise ships are gone. Hockey is over, and the concert schedule is light at the Tampa Bay Times Forum next door.
With the retail complex's future still uncertain, this year will be even more sluggish. Some owners of the remaining businesses are barely hanging on. One recently reduced hours, and at least one other is considering closing.
Almost everyone left wonders, "How could this be happening to one of Tampa's best assets?''
"I never thought they would let it get to this point,'' said Conrad Hauca, owner of Cold Stone Creamery, one of the original Channelside tenants. "In the heyday, we'd have a line out the door. Now I'm just trying to stick it out through the summer.''
After that, he'll have to re-evaluate.
Problems have been mounting for a while, ever since the former owner, Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp., defaulted on a $27 million mortgage in 2010. That put the complex back in the hands of an Irish bank that hasn't found a new owner that meets approval of the Tampa Port Authority, which owns the land under the center. Lightning hockey owner Jeff Vinik considered buying it at one point but dropped out amid legal hurdles. Then Liberty Channelside LLC stepped up but got the boot after accusations of being unprofessional and talk about cutting off people's hands.
In the meantime, Madison Marquette, the retail real estate company hired by the bank to run the property, is trying to keep things together. Manager Chuck Taylor said he has met with most tenants in the past few weeks to keep them updated but mostly to lend a sympathetic ear.
"Unfortunately, they are the victims here,'' he said. "They have their life's savings poured into this thing and have worked very hard.''
Madison Marquette has lowered rents based on documented sales figures but can't do much more than wait it out like everyone else, Taylor said. Under the management agreement, any new lease must stipulate that a tenant can be evicted with 30-days notice. Translation: Don't expect any new businesses to open in Channelside before this mess gets settled.
That's a harsh reality for stores and restaurants that rely on foot traffic. Forget getting a new tenant to take over the shuttered Channelside Cinemas. Or the still empty Stumps Supper Club. Or nearly all of the second level. For now, the center is more likely to subtract businesses than add them.
Even the signs show their age. The Florida Federation of Republican Women left last August.
J.P. Champagne, manager of the Wine Design, said they decided to open at 2 p.m. instead of 11 a.m. on weekdays because business was so slow. It's frustrating to have no control of the center's fate, he said, but he hasn't lost hope.
"We are still pretty optimistic because we have been here through the prime of Channelside, and we know what it has to offer,'' he said. "We're just waiting for someone to come in and revive the place.''
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Nate Weaver, manager of Surf Down Under, said strong support from locals is keeping the store afloat, especially during the tough summer months. He wasn't too disappointed when the Liberty deal fell through. He believes Channelside can do better. And will.
In the short term, businesses have at least one thing to look forward to: the Fourth of July fireworks launched from behind Channelside. Despite concerns that the center wasn't ready to host the festivities, the party will go on as planned. Tenants hope residents will come and see that Channelside is still open for business.
The situation isn't all grim. At lunchtime Friday, every table inside at Hooters was full, and a few people were waiting in line. Manager Robert Fisher said despite challenging times, the company is still satisfied with the location's numbers. Remarkably, sales are even slightly up over last year, a testament to the fact that Hooters is Channelside's biggest name and occupies the most prominent spot.
Rick Drury, owner of Precinct Pizza, said Channelside needs a landlord who can put money into the complex, attract new tenants and adjust the rents for the businesses that have stuck it out.
The Fourth of July generates good business, he said, but doesn't make up for the nearly 50 percent drop in sales during the summer. He can't break out of the cycle of making money for four months a year, losing money for four months and breaking even the rest.
It's a case of working hard but getting nowhere fast.
Susan Thurston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 225-3110.