Lightning approached about Channelside, but no deal struck

Published Jan. 14, 2012

TAMPA — Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik has been approached and is considering taking a stake in the long-troubled Channelside entertainment complex that lies adjacent to the Lightning's home ice, the Tampa Bay Times Forum, Lightning officials confirmed Friday.

However, they said, rumors swirling Friday that a deal has been struck go too far.

"We do have a keen interest with everything that goes on in our neighborhood, and we'd like to see Channelside be successful," Lightning spokesman Bill Wickett said. "To say today that we are taking on a business interest is not correct."

Lightning chief executive officer Tod Leiweke noted that a number of potential buyers are looking "and they think we would be a good marketing partner" given the team's proximity to Channelside.

One recurring rumor is that a dual sports deal could occur, whereby Tampa Bay Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg would buy the New York Mets and sell the Rays to Vinik, who would then relocate the Rays from St. Petersburg to his newly acquired Channelside territory.

It's chatter the Lightning hopes to squelch.

"Our organization enjoys a strong friendship with the Tampa Bay Rays and we look forward to deepening those bonds," Wickett said. "We wish them continued success on and off the field, but any speculation that we are interested in anything more is unfounded and untrue."

Some community leaders have advocated Vinik as a buyer to rejuvenate Channelside given his reputation as a strong civic backer during his tenure as Lightning owner. Vinik bankrolled about $40 million in recent renovations at the Forum and has been a major donor to area charities.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said he would welcome any additional involvement in downtown by Vinik, whom he called the kind of professional sports owner that Tampa loves to see.

"If Mr. Vinik was interested, I would love to see that transaction take place," Buckhorn said Friday. "It would make sense for the Lightning. It would make sense for Channelside."

Buckhorn said he has not talked to Vinik or anyone in the Lightning organization about the idea.

One change that Buckhorn suggests for any new Channelside owner is to take what is a "poorly designed complex" and orient it more to the waterfront.

"You blow out that back wall," Buckhorn said, and a new owner could not only open up views to the water, but could make Riverwalk rise over the port's operations and let Channelside open on the Riverwalk.

Any deal would involve the Tampa Port Authority, which owns the land under Channelside. Port spokesman Andy Fobes declined to speculate about a local buyer. Chuck Taylor, the court-appointed receiver managing Channelside, also said he had been told nothing about a sale of the complex involving Vinik.

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The downtown complex has been in limbo for years, struggling to boost its occupancy during the recession.

New York real estate firm Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp. bought it in 2006, but later failed to make payments on its $27 million bank loan. That prompted the bank that owned the property, Anglo Irish Bank of Dublin, to foreclose in 2010.

Private equity giant Lone Star Funds of Texas subsequently negotiated with Anglo Irish to buy a package of nonperforming and subperforming loans, including the Channelside note. Fobes said the port is still awaiting confirmation that the deal with Lone Star has been finalized.

Times reporters Rick Danielson and Damian Cristodero contributed to this story.