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Wednesday, Jun 20, 2018
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Editorial: Channelside complex at critical juncture

The prolonged legal battle over the ownership of Channelside Bay Plaza will reach a critical juncture next month when bids to take control of the retail and dining complex will be considered at auction.

Port Tampa Bay, which owns the land underneath the complex, is among the bidders. Others are not expected to be made public until after the bids are opened.

We urge the federal bankruptcy judge overseeing the process to look beyond the dollars bid and consider the overall impact a particular operator might have on the complex. Awarding the complex to the port, or to an entity that share’s the port’s vision, will bring unity to the development of a part of downtown poised for phenomenal growth over the next decade.

New condo projects and apartments are being planned, along with a new hotel near the Forum, where the Tampa Bay Lightning play. Mayor Bob Buckhorn has made no secret of his desire for a baseball stadium to be built in the area that might one day host the Tampa Bay Rays. And the Lightning’s owner, Jeffrey Vinik, has a vision for developing land he owns in this part of downtown.

A big piece of that area’s future rests with the redevelopment of the failed Channelside complex, and the choice the judge makes.

The mortgage on the complex is held by an Irish bank that fell into foreclosure. The disbursement of its assets, including the complex, is now up to a U.S. bankruptcy court. Channelside bids are expected to be opened early next month, and the judge may decide a winner weeks later.

The port has submitted a $5.75 million opening bid. Although the other bids have not been made public, a former suitor at one time submitted a $7 million offer to the court that might be among the bids.

The award doesn’t automatically go to the highest bidder, however. As the Tribune’s Richard Mullins reports, bankruptcy law requires the court to consider the viability of the offers and whether the entity behind a bid is good for the money and will keep the complex from returning to bankruptcy court some day in the future.

The port certainly offers that long-term stability the court desires. The group behind the $7 million offer, Liberty Channelside LLC, is engaged in a bitter dispute over the port’s spurning of its plans to redevelop the complex. The Liberty developers, who are of Indian descent, sued over what they perceived to be racial bias, a claim the court has not taken very seriously. Their continued pursuit of the complex smacks of revenge and has delayed efforts by the port to begin redeveloping the complex.

Today, the complex is nearly empty and in disrepair. Inspectors have identified as much as $8 million in maintenance issues that a new operator will need to address.

The best path for Channelside — and the entire downtown — is for the judge to award the bid to the port or to a like-minded developer who has the means to turn the complex into a vibrant commercial center that fits into an overall vision for the area.

The judge should consider that long-term vision when deciding who wins the bid.

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