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Port Authority to buy out Channelside center

The Tampa Port Authority late Tuesday approved a plan to buy out the troubled Channelside retail and shopping complex for just under $6 million in cash, potentially ending years of legal and political wrangling over the nearly vacant property.

If all goes as planned -- and several legal steps must be sorted out -- the port authority could take full possession of Channelside in the next three to eight weeks. That, in turn, could not only open up the property for a serious face-lift, but also trigger wider redevelopment of the whole area for a potential baseball stadium site, according to several port authority board members.

“This is a fresh start,” said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn after the Tuesday night vote. “This lets us take control of our own destiny.”

Once the check clears and the property is truly under the port authority's control, Buckhorn said, the port will likely call on the development community to bring their ideas and resources to remake Channelside into a prosperous venue again.

Despite being at the doorstep of the cruise ship ticketing venue, and next door to the Florida Aquarium, the Channelside complex is more than half vacant, and the second floor mezzanine only has one operating restaurant that sits next to several empty nightclubs and a closed-down movie theater complex.

The port authority board met in private Tuesday to consider the proposed settlement, then emerged only for a few minutes to unanimously approve the deal and take questions from the media.

That deal involves a broad legal settlement between the Port of Tampa and the Irish Bank Resolution Corp., which still holds a multi-million mortgage on the property above ground. The deal calls for the port authority to pay $5.75 million in cash from the port's own roughly $45 million annual operating budget. That budget is funded by fees and rents from port operations, several port authority board members hastened to mention, and not from taxpayer dollars or government funds.

Port authority lawyers will now file notice of the settlement with several courts that have various actions related to Channelside.

The move could potentially end a long and tangled drama over Channelside, which was originally built as an entertainment complex for millions of cruise ship passengers. Unfortunately, it was built with a closed-off design, and the property struggled over several years, ultimately becoming a mostly empty hulk.

The property fell into disrepair and bankruptcy, but because the port authority owns the land underneath, the port was dragged into legal fights as the above-ground structure is backed by a mortgage from an Irish-based bank. That bank collapsed, further complicating legal matters.

At one point, several outside bidders sought to invest in the property and take over operations, including the Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, but he later backed out of consideration.

The Irish bank subsequently filed for bankruptcy protection connected to the Channelside property, leading some port commissioners to wonder if the port authority should simply make an offer to buy out the bank and take total control of the property.

According to port counsel Charles Klug, the deal also clears another potentially tricky legal hurdle. A partnership between the developer pair of Liberty Group and Convergent Capital had previously tried to acquire control of Channelside by buying out the Irish bank's interest but were rebuffed by the port authority for offering what port officials said was an inferior offer. Now, Klug said, the Irish Bank has essentially paid off that group to release their interests.

As for Channelside's immediate future this summer, Buckhorn ruled out the possibility of demolishing the site and starting over. Instead, he suggested the new deal would open the door for development across the wider neighborhood.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman said after the vote that she hoped the move would “kickstart more development, maybe a baseball stadium. It's like a lawnmower, once you get the engine started, it just goes.”

In other port news Tuesday, Gov. Rick Scott appointed John Grandoff III to the Port Authority board of commissioners.

Grandoff, 55, of Tampa, is an attorney with the law firm of Hill Ward & Henderson.

He has served as a board member of the Tampa Bay Area Research and Development Authority, and currently serves as a board member for Mental Health Care Inc. and the Jesuit High School Foundation. He fills a seat vacated by William “Hoe” Brown, who stepped down from the board amid swirling controversy over rental properties that he owns in Tampa that the city shut down as squalor-filled code violations.

If approved by the Florida Senate, Grandoff's term would run from Sept. 10, 2013, to Nov. 12, 2015.

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