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City Hall to seek restaurant or retail next to Tampa Convention Center

Published Dec. 28, 2015

TAMPA — For more than six years, the storefront next to the Tampa Convention Center has sat vacant, but its landlord means to change that.

"I want to activate that space," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said recently.

So the city will soon issue a request for proposals that seeks to put a restaurant or stores in the 6,000-square-foot space on the ground floor of the convention center's parking garage.

"I think that would be a home run," said Jeff Weinthaler, general manager of the Embassy Suites Tampa-Downtown Convention Center, which is just across the street. "One thing we do hear from our customers from time to time is, 'Where's restaurants? Where's shopping? Where's places to go?' "

City officials said the solicitation will be part of a larger request for proposals for a food and beverage concessionaire at the convention center. Already, one contender has announced its plans to submit a bid to take over the city contract from the current vendor, Aramark.

In October, the Columbia Restaurant Group said it would team up with Spectra by Comcast Spectacor , a national entertainment firm, to submit a bid. Columbia president Richard Gonzmart said the contract would create an opportunity to give visitors to Tampa "authentic local flavors."

On Wednesday, Columbia chief marketing officer Michael Kilgore said the company hadn't seen the city's request yet, so he wasn't in a position to say whether the Columbia bid would include a restaurant in the vacant space.

But, he said, "we're pretty open to doing whatever it takes to win this contract."

The space in the northwest corner of S Franklin Street and Channelside Drive was once home to the Tampa Bay History Center. But the museum left and moved into a permanent home next to Amalie Arena in early 2009.

Since then, city officials say, activity has picked up with the expansion of the Riverwalk and the arrival of new employers like Total Quality Logistics on Harbour Island. A series of projects are planned or under construction within a few blocks.

To the south, one 21-story apartment tower on Harbour Island is under construction. The Related Group has begun pulling permits for a second apartment tower of the same size. A legal challenge from a group of Harbour Island neighbors who don't like the Related project ran into a dead end at the Florida 2nd District Court of Appeal.

To the west, Related recently bought and rezoned the current site of the Tampa Tribune, just across the W Brorein Street bridge, where it plans to build 400 apartments or condominiums and a riverfront restaurant.

To the east, the Richman Group is building a five-story block of apartments at the southeast corner of E Whiting and S Morgan streets with plans to open early next year.

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And one block to the east and another to the south, Strategic Property Partners plans to build a 500-room hotel as part of the $2 billion redevelopment project planned by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and Cascade Investment, the capital fund launched by billionaire Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

All of which is expected to help create critical mass that could support a new tenant in the parking garage space.

"It all adds up," Weinthaler said. At the Embassy Suites, the hotel recently replaced a ground-floor florist with a Segway rental concession so conventioneers and other visitors have more to do after their event is over. The last thing downtown hoteliers want, he said, is for visitors to get the idea that need to get in their cars to get something to eat or have something to do.

The request is expected to come out in the next few weeks, and Buckhorn thinks the timing is right.

"It may not have worked in '95," he said, but "with the growth of downtown and the growth in the hotels there … I darn think it would work now."

Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times.