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Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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The right Channelside message

Talk of a fresh start for the troubled Channelside Bay Plaza retail and entertainment complex turned out to be short-lived, at least for now. And for good reason. The two developers wanting to assume the Channelside lease appeared hesitant to agree to the financial safeguards needed to minimize the risk to the Port Authority, which owns the land under the complex. For that reason alone, the Port Authority board was right to reject their interest this week. The Tampa-based team of Liberty Group and Convergent Capital pitched a plan last month to spend as much as $22 million to add new shops, restaurants and a hotel to the complex, which is 60 percent vacant.
But the negotiations broke down over demands by the port that the developers put as much as $8 million in escrow to pay for renovations should the work fail to go as planned. Of course, their behavior hadn’t exactly endeared them to the port’s staff. They apparently were antagonistic with staff during negotiations, and held a public gathering to garner support for their plan before the port was fully on board. In addition, their plans lacked the sort of detail the board needed to commit. This is not to demean the two developers who make up the team, Santosh Govindaraju, of Convergent, and Punit Shah, of Liberty, who are turning an abandoned eyesore at the corner of Kennedy Boulevard and Ashley Street into a boutique hotel. If they return with the right vision and can meet the Port’s financial demands, perhaps their bid can be reconsidered. But Channelside’s history of failed operators and mortgage defaults demands that the Port proceed with an abundance of caution. That part of downtown needs Channelside to fulfill its promise as a dining and entertainment destination. Perhaps the decision this week opens the door to Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, who has previously expressed interest in taking over Channelside as part of a plan to link the complex with the Forum arena where his hockey team plays. Whether it’s Vinik or some other developer, the board has sent a message that it will demand financial accountability before committing. That’s the right message. The last thing Channelside needs is another failed operator.
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