Take a stroll along the shops on Channelside Drive, as I did one scorching, humid afternoon last week, and you might be tempted to think only a bulldozer can cure what ails that place.
It’s not hard to see why the project landed in bankruptcy court. You see many empty storefronts, speaking to the failed dreams of people who bought into the hype of this faceless patch of concrete and peeling paint along downtown Tampa’s waterfront.
Speaking of the water, if you want a good look at Garrison Channel you need to park and walk inside the main mall. Even then you’ll have to peer out through a locked chain-link fence. Because it’s so close to the Port Tampa Bay cruise ship terminal, Homeland Security restricted access to the walkway by the water.
As you look around the mall, you can see the abandoned movie theater. Over there is where Bennigan’s used to be. Stump’s Supper Club closed. A few places remain open, but you get the idea.
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But there is hope in some parts of Channelside because Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik has won the right to redevelop the area.
“Anything he does is golden,” said Kendrix “K.J.” Jones, who owns the Surf Down Under shop. “Why question greatness?”
Vinik has been coy about his plans, but we know he thinks big. He spent about $40 million from his own considerable fortune to renovate the publicly owned Forum where his team plays hockey, and it transformed a tired building into something special.
His people have hinted at a retail and entertainment concept similar to L.A. Live in Los Angeles, but until the public sees blueprints it will be hard to know for sure what he has in mind. That has some of the surviving merchants at Channelside simultaneously edgy and hopeful.
As landlord, he could tell the existing businesses they have to move. He could invite them in as partners. Until then, it’s hard to know anything concrete. For instance, Rick Drury started Precinct Pizza there eight years ago and built it up to $1.8 million in sales last year.
He is on a month-to-month lease, though, and who knows if a pizza restaurant fits into the long-term plans for the area?
“Until Jeff Vinik comes here and says, ‘I have the keys to Channelside and let’s sign a lease,’ I’ll just remain cautiously optimistic,” Drury said. “There is no question it could be better here.”
Oh, let us count the ways it could be better.
There is little about Channelside now that tells visitors they’re in Tampa. Our biggest asset is the water, but original planners built large buildings to block the view. That needs to change in any new incarnation.
What would draw anyone there in the first place? If you want to go drinking or dining, Ybor City is barely 2 miles away. Entertainment? Well, there’s a lot of that at the Forum.
You also have the problem of an area with no central identity. The nearby Florida Aquarium suggests this is a family district. You get sports and concerts at the Forum. Traffic can be a problem when big events go there, and people so far have said “let’s go to the hockey game” instead of “let’s go to Channelside.”
Maybe the first move is to make it more residential to take advantage of the apartments and condos being built or already occupied nearby. Drury suggested a grocery store, a place to get your hair cut, and other basic conveniences for residents. Then draw them out at night with such things as free live music and sidewalk acts.
“I’d love to see a giant Ferris wheel like they have in Chicago,” K.J. Jones said. “That would be really cool.”
Channelside needs a signature, much like the giant pipe organ and Tesla coil that simulates lightning are signatures at the Forum. Vinik controls tracts of land north of the Forum that likely will be part of the larger transformation of the area.
Channelside failed before because Tampa historically has been an event-driven town, and there aren’t enough of those to sustain a project of this size. The attraction has to be Channelside itself.
No one has yet proven a way to make that happen. Although there are some successful places to eat or shop there, the other boarded-up stores are filled with ghosts of what might have been.
You sense this may be Vinik’s biggest challenge. Then again, I thought the same thing when he took over a failing Lightning franchise and turned it quickly from a joke into one of pro sports’ best-run operations.
So stay tuned. The place looks pretty tired now, but this is the best chance yet to get it right in Channelside.