TAMPA — Charities and event planners are on the verge of losing one of Tampa Bay's most popular venues.
Bloomin' Brands Inc. will stop leasing the A La Carte Event Pavilion from the Egypt Shriners at the end of the year. For now, at least, no other hospitality operator appears to be waiting in the wings.
James Lich, the Shriners' assistant rabban, or second vice president, said his organization is considering three options for what to do with the 56,000-square-foot space that sits on 13 acres of waterfront property.
"Our first choice, I'd say, is selling off two-thirds, with the Shriners retaining one-third," said Lich, adding that the membership would hold on to the 20,000-plus-square-foot Stu Lang Auditorium adjacent to A La Carte.
The second option would be for the Shriners to sell the entire parcel. Asking price: $15 million.
But the third — and least likely — option would be leasing it to another hospitality tenant that would continue to book and cater events at A La Carte.
A La Carte stages about 500 corporate, nonprofit and wedding events a year and seats up to 1,000 guests. But its uncertain future has brides, grooms and party planners researching other venues like hotel ballrooms, sports arenas, airport hangars and cruise ship terminals to hold their 2016 affairs.
Moffitt Cancer Center has moved its annual Magnolia Ball, an event that raised $3.2 million this year, to the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina in April 2016. St. Joseph's Hospital Foundation bumped its Heroes Ball to the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay in May 2016.
"A La Carte's been a great partner for the last eight years and to so many nonprofits," said Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay senior director Amy Hollington. "There are alternative spaces, but few as adaptable and comfortable for more than 500 people."
Lich, head of a committee of Shriners overseeing the real estate sale, noted that the zoning would allow for a new high-end apartment or condominium complex to be built on the waterfront property.
He did not rule out leasing A La Carte to a culinary arts school or as a hotelier's off-site catering venue.
"It's move-in ready," he said, noting the $6.5 million in improvements that Bloomin' Brands has made to the 50-year-old building since 2000.
Lich said the fate of the busy banquet hall on Dana Shores Drive, west of Tampa International Airport, will be decided in 45 to 60 days.
The property has had 3,000 hits on the commercial listing with Redstone Investment, Lich said. He said they've been contacted by a handful of potential buyers.
"It's one of the hottest properties in the Southeast U.S.A.," Lich said.
Cathie Koch, Bloomin' Brands' vice president of corporate communications, said the company chose to let the A La Carte lease expire on Dec. 31 to concentrate on its four restaurant brands: Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba's Italian Grill, Bonefish Grill and Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar. She noted that Bloomin' Brands sold Asian fusion chain Roy's for the same reason.
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A La Carte's 20 full-time employees will be offered positions at one of Bloomin' Brands' other restaurants.
"It's been a great run," Koch said.
Some of the bay area's biggest events have already moved on.
The American Heart Association chose the Marriott for its Tampa Bay Heart Ball in April 2016, while a new location for next year's Go Red luncheon has yet to be determined.
"My team and I have a lot of wonderful memories at A La Carte, and I will treasure them," said Kate Sawa, the association's executive director. "This year's events were the most successful we've ever had."
Outback Bowl event coordinator Becky Weightman is relieved the annual Gridiron Gala made it onto A La Carte's calendar. The invitation-only party at the end of December will be one of the last events held at the pavilion.
"We've had all positive experiences over the years, and the staff has been wonderful," Weightman said. "I hope it's a viable event venue going forward."
The Shriners said they need to focus on their core mission.
Lich said the decades-long drop in membership — from 12,000 to about 2,500 — drastically affected the collection of dues. The Shriners said operating the large complex is costing them too much money.
"Brick-and-mortar responsibilities keep us from our goal of providing transportation to Shriners Hospital for Children," Lich said.
As for the A La Carte Event Pavilion, he added: "We are lucky to have such an albatross."
Contact Amy Scherzer at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3332.